The Amateur Amateur: A Whole Bunch of Site Visits

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
October 2017

Barnes-Jewish Hospital roof
Barnes-Jewish Hospital roof
Barnes-Jewish Hospital roof
Barnes-Jewish Hospital roof
Red Cross radio room
Steve sorting out the Red Cross radio room
Red Cross HF radio
Does it still work? Is it connected to an antenna?
BHC radio
BHC transceiver in a personal office
BHC tower
BHC antenna mast, and oh, look! There's an Amateur Radio antenna!

Looking at the thirteen-year history of our St. Louis Metro ARES group, it feels like we've gone from standing still to blazing along at a hundred miles an hour. The workload, on the other hand, seems to have gone from zero to infinity.

The man who shoulders most of that burden is Steve Wooten, KC0QMU. He's the EC (Emergency Coordinator) for our group. I'm his number two guy (or would that be Number One? No, that's Star Trek), so whatever tumbles from his broad shoulders usually lands on mine. I'm the Assistant Emergency Coordinator - Operations.

I put in a lot of hours every week working on ARES stuff. I'm retired now, but it's a lot like having a full time job. What amazes me, though, is that Steve, who does have a full time job, does at least fifty times as much work on ARES than I do. I don't know how he does it. I strongly suspect that he divides the work among a secret army of Steve-clones, or perhaps he operates in a separate dimension consisting of 128-hour days. There's no other explanation.

Let me give you the rundown on the last few weeks.

Monday the 11th

Steve and I visited Barnes-Jewish Hospital and the adjacent Washington University School of Medicine. The two organizations had recently built a joint Emergency Operation Center, complete with an attached communications room. We were given a tour of the new facility, and shown the brand new Amateur Radio gear that had been installed in it. It was all very impressive, and I was gratified that they were taking the role of Amateur Radio seriously.

Since the EOC was now functional and had all-new equipment, the hospital felt that it no longer needed the ham gear located on the 17th floor of its main building. They said that they would donate it to our ARES group. All we had to do was disconnect and haul it all away. Well, we did that. But, it turned out that they also meant we could have the Amateur Radio antennas located on the roof of the hospital.

Umm, okay. I wasn't particularly happy about it, but I followed Steve and our hospital contact up to the roof. Don't get me wrong. I wasn't afraid of heights. It's just that at my age, my knees, hips, and so forth don't take kindly to steep stairs and ladders.

But, I made it. We looked around, determined that one dual-band antenna was still up and a second had toppled. There was still a usable HF antenna, and also remnants of one that had broken. We made a list of what we'd like and what could be scrapped and gave it to our contact.

Happily, someone at the hospital would retrieve it all for us. Also, I would be able to go home and take some Aleve for my aching joints.

Friday the 15th

We visited the local chapter of the American Red Cross. Our MOU (Memorandum Of Understanding) with them is relatively new, and the Director of Disaster Services has asked us to help revamp the chapter's old radio room. Unfortunately, it had become something of a storage room, with piles and piles of obsolete radio equipment (and, frankly, junk) lying all over the place. Our task was to sort and catalog everything for proper disposal. We also had a secondary task, which was to see what kind of shape the chapter's old Amateur Radio equipment was in.

We spent hours segregating hand-held radios, mobile radios, speakers, and everything else imaginable into boxes, and when we were finished, it didn't seem as though we had made a dent in the piles of detritus. Maybe next time we should rent a backhoe before going.

We did, however, get a chance to check out the Amateur Radio equipment. There were two 2 meter transceivers, one dual-band transceiver, one HF transceiver, and two TNCs (Terminal Node Controllers). The dual-band radio was the only thing that didn't qualify as "ancient", and fortunately, it still worked. The antenna situation was a bit of a mystery, as the coaxial cables ran through parts of the building that we couldn't access, and then up a huge tower with numerous antennas on it. As the dual-band transceiver seemed to hit local repeaters okay, we assumed that there must be a dual band ham antenna somewhere up there.

The HF antenna was the big question. The coax plugged into the HF rig was labeled "Dipole", but those come in many shapes and sizes. Squinting up at the tower, there was nothing we could specifically identify as an HF antenna. But, having been forewarned about the situation by Steve, I had brought along a SWR (Standing Wave Ratio) meter. I plugged the coax into my meter and ran through the bands. The readings were pretty good for the higher frequencies and Yuch! for the lower frequencies. That's most unfortunate, as the Missouri-wide HF emergency frequencies are down in the Yuch! bands.

So, there was a HF antenna somewhere, but it was pretty much useless for our needs.

It was a lot of sweaty work, but at least we learned a few things.

Monday the 25th

One of our ARES team's earliest served agencies (clients) was the Bellefontaine Habilitation Center. They had actually acquired Amateur Radio equipment (radios, coaxial cable, an antenna) when they had signed a MOU with us. At the time, however, they were in the midst of constructing new buildings on their campus, and it was uncertain where the administrative offices would be. Now, some years later, they contacted us to let us know that they had settled into their permanent location. They had dug up the Amateur Radio equipment, and apparently even had the antenna installed. They wanted us to check it out.

Well, we've had some bad luck with served agencies installing equipment, including antennas, in random and often inappropriate places. So, it was with some small amount of trepidation that Steve and I went out to see what had been done.

The BHC campus is huge. It covers a lot of acreage, has roads leading hither and yon, and virtually all of the buildings that had been there during our first visit were gone. Naturally, we made a few wrong turns. As we were driving around, though, I kept noticing a nice tall Rohn antenna mast in the distance.

"Boy, wouldn't it be nice if that were on this property and we could stick the ham antenna on it?" I exclaimed.

As we approached the new administration building, it became obvious that the mast was on the BHC property... and right next to the admin building itself!

We parked and walked toward the mast, trying to figure out what it was for.

"That sure looks like a Diamond X-300A dual-band Amateur antenna," Steve said, gazing up.

It was.

For once, fortune had smiled on us. The mast hadn't been erected specifically for the ham antenna, but the X-300A held a nice, prominent place on it.

Once inside the building, we found the dual-band transceiver. The good news was it was the same model as those that had been installed in most of the area hospitals. Just about any of our operators would be able to use it without spending a lot of time poring over the manual. The bad news was that it was located in someone's office.

We were told that this was only temporary, just to make sure the radio didn't "walk away" when no one was looking. Once they had determined where they would put their emergency command center, they would move the radio close to that. We agreed that would be a good idea, and suggested obtaining a lockable cabinet for the radio. That seemed to work well for some of our other served agencies.

Still Monday the 25th

Feeling that it had been a successful visit (and had required no physical labor), we started talking about the difficulties my wife Nancy (N0NJ) had encountered at one of the local hospitals (see my previous column, "Big Trouble in Deadzone"). There were problems with both of the Amateur Radios at that location. We suspected that the antennas might have issues.

"We aren't that far away," Steve said. "Do you want to swing by there?"

"Sure," I said. I figured that we'd take a quick drive around the hospital's main building to see if we could locate the Amateur Radio antennas. We thought we knew where they were, but I was no longer sure.

We arrived at the hospital and drove around it, but couldn't really tell anything from ground level.

"Let's go up to the room where they keep the radios," I suggested.

I didn't intend to intrude, as the radios were kept in a frequently-used conference room. All I wanted to do was to get it straight in my head in which part of the hospital the room was located. We believed that it was on the west side of the building. Mentally tracing the corridors in my head, though, I'd concluded that the conference room must be on the north side. If that were the case, maybe the antennas we'd seen on the west side weren't, in fact, the Amateur antennas.

So, we went in, rode the elevator up to the second floor, and went to the conference room.

My mental calculations had been wrong. It was on the west side of the building, not the north side.

"There's no one in the conference room," I noted.

"I want to look out the window," Steve said.

He did, but the view was blocked by various obstacles. We couldn't see any antennas.

Steve stuck his head into the adjacent nurse's office.

"Is there a window on the floor above this one?" he asked.

The nurse replied that there was no access to the third floor, but there was a window on the fourth floor.

So, we made our way up to floor number four, went to the west side, and found the right window. We saw the antennas! Moreover, they weren't at the same level as the conference room, but sitting atop it. They appeared to be intact, as did all of the coaxial cable that we could see, but one thing disturbed me.

The coaxial cable for both Amateur Radio antennas ran snugly against the lightning grounding cable.

Wow. One good surge through that grounding cable and the coax is going to melt, I thought.

And, I suspect, that may be exactly what happened.

"Steve, my SWR meter is sitting out in your car. Do you mind if I test these cables?" I asked.

Steve shrugged and said sure.

Five minutes later, I had confirmed that the SWR on each antenna system was in the Yuch!-range.

So, what was supposed to have been a quick drive-by turned into a major search-and-analyze project. But, at least now we had positively identified the antenna systems as the culprits.

Thursday the 28th

Steve and I met at a local park to figure out where to put everyone during our upcoming Simulated Emergency Test (S.E.T.).....

Okay, I'm sure you've got the point by now. We're busy guys. For my part, I also attended ARES meetings, ran weekly nets, and made updates to our membership database and Website.

As for Steve, I'm sure he kept his Twilight Zone clone army very busy.

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