The Amateur Amateur: Going Off-Script

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
May 2017

Calling the St. Louis Metro ARES net. Calling the St. Louis Metro Amateur Radio Emergency Service net. This net meets every Wednesday at 7:30 PM local time on this repeater for the purposes of training, handling traffic, and encouraging amateur participation in emergency communications.

I've read those lines so many times that, if they unearth my remains ten-thousand years from now, they'll probably find the words ingrained in my DNA. They are the beginning of (guess what?) the St. Louis Metro ARES weekly voice net script.

The bones of the script are about thirteen years old, having been created when St. Louis County ARES (as it was then called) was started under Emergency Coordinator Steve Wooten, KC0QMU. Not long after that event, I was tapped as the net manager. Version 1 of the script was written, then re-written, used for a while, modified again, and... well, you get the idea. It has morphed more times than the Power Rangers.

We are now on Version 16, and it seems to have outlived all of its predecessors. I've even heard segments of it used in other Amateur Radio nets. I can't take credit for writing the script, as there were various contributors, but there is a lot of me in it. In many ways, it's my baby.

All amateur radio operators are welcome to participate. You will need to use a CTCSS tone of 141.3 Hertz to activate this repeater.

I am the net manager, but I am not the only net control operator. I have a small group of dedicated volunteers who help me. Together, we rotate "net duty" so that everyone gets an opportunity to participate, and I get to stay sane.

Nevertheless, I monitor every net, so, I have heard the script read aloud countless times. Sometimes I even recite it along with the duty net controller (not over the air, of course). And afterward, when my wife Nancy (N0NJ) asks, "How did the net go?", I occasionally find myself rambling off passages from the script.

There's also a very good chance that I mumble the entire script into my pillow while I sleep.

This is a directed net. All participation will be under the supervision of the Net Control operator.

I am <<YOUR NAME and PERSONAL CALL SIGN>>. I am the Net Control operator for the St. Louis Metro ARES net this evening, and as such I will be operating under the call sign N0ARS.

One day, two separate thoughts that had been percolating in my mind collided. The first thought was that I'd been considering alternate net scripts just to keep the weekly net "fresh". The second thought was that I could probably run an entire net without actually referring to the written script.

Well, those two ideas actually seemed to contradict each other. But then I had another idea. (I have lots of ideas. They just aren't necessarily brilliant ideas.) My new thought was, can I somehow make this into an exercise?

Alright! Now I had a way to make this work. It would satisfy the requirements of all three ideas: (1) It would certainly be something "fresh" (2) I would run the net without having a script, and (3) it would be an exercise.

Here is the premise, as I explained over the air just before calling the net. The St. Louis Metro ARES weekly voice net is, most of all, a training net. It emulates a "resources net", one that is called during the early stages of a disaster to determine who would be available, where they were, and what equipment they had. I would be simulating a situation in which the Emergency Coordinator had contacted me and instructed me to start up a resources net, and I'd replied, okay, I can do that.

Only, I wasn't at home.

And, I didn't have a script with me.

So, I would have to wing it. I would have to rely on my memory.

Surely I could do this. I knew the script by heart. No problem, right?

Before we begin, I will pause for Emergency and Priority traffic. If you have emergency or priority traffic, please call now.

I explained all this at the beginning of our last regular ARES weekly net. And, I must admit that when I'm not actually reading from a prepared script, my on-air dialog is full of the key words "Um" and "Ah", so I sounded anything but professional during my commentary. But, the net participants didn't snicker or make snide remarks (on the air, at least), so I pressed on.

Now I was in safe territory. I started reciting the script from memory. Yes sir. "Calling the St. Louis Metro ARES net. Calling the St. Louis Metro Amateur Radio Emergency Service net..."

Everything appeared to be going well, but I had the sense that something wasn't quite right. I didn't think that I had flubbed or missed anything, but somehow the speech I was delivering seemed, well, too short.

This is N0ARS, St. Louis Metro ARES. Anyone wishing to check in, please call now with just your call sign or your call sign and the words 'short time' if you cannot stay.

I kept on going. I was sure that I must have skipped over sentences, or perhaps even whole sections of the script, but nothing came to mind. I was a little distressed that, when it really counted, I couldn't literally rattle off the whole script error-free. But, that's what an exercise is all about, right? Making mistakes and learning from them.

I had no idea how big a mistake I had made until I was in the process of calling back each of the operators who had checked in. One of them referred to me as W0SRC.

"That's the call sign of the repeater," I said. "The ARES call sign is N0ARS..."

Oh crud.

I'd forgotten the part of the script where I would normally give the ARES call sign.

Sweat broke out on my brow. I'd not only missed giving the ARES call sign, I hadn't given any call sign since my initial announcement. I hadn't just messed up, I'd messed up big time!

Talk about an embarrassing moment!

I stammered an apology and continued with the net. Needless to say, I started using the ARES call sign frequently, sometimes as often as two or three times in a single sentence. My use of the words "Um" and "Ah" dramatically increased as well.

Somehow, I managed to finish the net. I sat back and reflected on what had happened. Yeah, I'd made a boo-boo. Had I learned anything from the experience?

Well, I now know for sure that I can read a script quite well, but am far less adept at extemporizing while on the air. I guess I also learned that I have difficulty accessing my memory while simultaneously flying by the seat of my pants. I am a mere mortal. (I'll have to check the Basic Emergency Operations Manual to see if mortals are allowed to be net managers.)

Assuming that Steve doesn't fire me, and that the other net controllers don't hold a palace revolution, it will be a long time before I go off-script again.

ARES logo

Dedicated to

Ed Berkel, AE0EB
Dolores Guittar, KD0CIV
Jeffrey Jacks, AD0XX
Henry Schaper, KA0AWS
Jon Schaumann, W0KZ
Gary Timm, KD0CNZ
Roy Tribble, K0TRB

..and everyone who has served as a net control operator for St. Louis Metro ARES in the past.

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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