The Amateur Amateur: Repeater Roulette

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
March 2016

We do have an occasional disaster here in the St. Louis area. There are floods, tornadoes, and sometimes even just looking at the power lines will cause them to fail. But we hardly ever have anything that requires an Amateur Radio response. And while our ARES® group (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) has agreements with many local agencies, some of the emergency managers don't take Amateur Radio (or even their own jobs) very seriously. This means that disaster drills are infrequent and few of those involve Amateur Radio in any significant way.

So, how does our ARES group keep its volunteers interested and active? Well, we have to create our own exercises. After all, we know there is a major disaster looming. We even know what is will be. I won't go into the details, but if you're curious just look up the New Madrid Seismic Zone.

Oh yeah, gonna be a whole lotta shakin' goin' on.

St. Louis Metro ARES tries to hold at least four exercises every year. Each one is different, and we try to vary them from year to year. We also invite the entire Amateur Radio community to participate, hoping to stimulate more interest in emergency communications. Naturally we like to make the exercises as realistic as possible, but doing so led to an unexpected discovery.

A surprising number of Amateur Radio operators are not familiar with their equipment.

Okay, let me make it clear that I'm not dissing or belittling anyone. (Believe me, when I say that I'm the amateur amateur I really mean it.) People get into Amateur Radio for lots of different reasons. Once their radio is set up to perform their favorite function, some operators simply leave it that way and don't tinker with it any further. I have no problem with that.

But here's the rub. Lots of Amateur Radio operators volunteer their services to help out in disasters. That is truly commendable, and I'm glad that they do. Emergency situations, however, require a certain amount of flexibility. I won't go into personal preparations or knowing the organizational structure or anything like that (at least not in this column), but during an emergency an operator will need to understand the basics of his or her equipment. For example, how do you enter a new frequency, a repeater offset, and a tone of some sort without resorting to reading the manual?

With this in mind, our ARES group designs a series of both complex and relatively elementary exercises each year. Some press the operators to do a lot of multitasking, while others just encourage them to become more familiar with their own radios.

One simple exercise we did for a while was starting a net on a repeater and then pretending that the repeater had failed. Sometimes we'd announce it in advance, along with the frequency of the backup repeater, and sometimes we'd leave out that crucial information. What to do and where to go were published in our operations plan, and hopefully everyone would remember that.

While discussing what we should do for 2016, we dusted off the old "repeater switching exercise", and Bob Gale, WA4GDX, who is our Assistant Emergency Coordinator for exercise planning, added a new twist. Instead of switching from repeater A to repeater B, we would go from A to B to C and so forth.

There were several appealing aspects to Bob's proposal. It was new and novel, something we hadn't tried before. A sort of "repeater roulette". It would certainly give the participants experience in reprogramming their radios. And if enough trustees agreed to allow us to use their repeaters during the exercise, it would give us some idea of which areas of St. Louis City and County had good coverage and which had gaps. (The terrain around here is somewhat bumpy.)

For the exercise to work, however, we would need to access several repeaters. The big question was, how many could we get?

repeater routlette

Repeater Roulette

Twelve, as it turned out. We received fantastic support and cooperation from local clubs and individual owners, who were just as curious as we were about the coverage of their repeaters.

So the exercise was on. Bob wrote up scripts. I put a notice about the exercise on our ARES Web site. Janelle Haible, N0MTI, our Public Information Officer, hit the social media. Steve Wooten, KC0QMU, our Emergency Coordinator, started recruiting net control operators.

Ah yes. Not only were there going to be multiple repeaters, there was going to be a separate net on each one. When the net concluded on one repeater, its net controller would advise the participants where the next net would be held. At the beginning of the exercise all participants were informed to return to the initial frequency if they got lost or couldn't reach one of the other machines. A net control station would remain there to let them know which repeater in the sequence was currently being used and/or take reports of failed attempts to make contact.

You see, we knew that a few of the repeaters would be hard to reach (most notably St. Louis Metro ARES's own donated, not-quite-up-to-par VHF and UHF antiques). We scheduled those to be last in the sequence.

Exercise day rolled around and we were ready. At 9:00 AM precisely the primary net controller made his announcements, took check-ins, and asked for information such as the participant's location, antenna, power level and so forth.

We never know what kind of turn-out we're going to get. Sometimes it's high, sometimes, it's low, and it's never clear why it's either. (Phases of the moon? An important ball game? Coupon day at Pizza King?) In this case we were gratified that the turn-out was fairly high.

At least, we were initially.

The problem with the high number of participants was that it took about 25 minutes to get everyone checked-in and take down their information. Every net controller on every repeater was going to ask the same thing.

And we had only scheduled two hours for the entire exercise.

But even worse, it was obvious that the participants were going to quickly become bored with answering the same series of questions.

Several of us figured this out about halfway through the second net. The exercise was going to take forever, and many people were probably going to drop out early. The managers got together on the main frequency and held a quick conference. Modify the exercise? Yes. Absolutely. Shorten all subsequent nets so that the net controller only asked for the readability of the repeater. Bob took the lead and informed all of the net controllers.

It worked. Interest remained high and the exercise actually ended on time (more or less).

So was the "repeater roulette" exercise a success? I would say yes. The participants learned (or re-learned) some key programming aspects of their radios. They got experience with emergency net operations and switching between nets. The repeater trustees received valuable information about the coverage of their machines. And we in the ARES leadership were reminded that things will never go as planned, and we should always be ready to innovate.

I would like to thank the St. Louis and Suburban Radio Club, the Monsanto Amateur Radio Association, the Boeing Employees Amateur Radio Society, the Northwest Amateur Radio & Electronics Association, KA9HNT, and the Carondolet Amateur Radio Society for their generous support of this exercise.

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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