The Amateur Amateur: I'm Assuming Command

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
November 2017

Bob, WA4GDX (left) and Peter, N0MTH (right)

October is more than just the month in which everyone dresses up in scary costumes and yells, "Trick or Treat!" It's also the month that many ARES groups hold their annual S.E.T. (Simulated Emergency Test). This year, our St. Louis Metro ARES team decided to try something different. And if anything, it certainly tested our ability to cope with the unexpected.

In the past, we had deployed our operators to various locations around St. Louis City and County. Whenever possible, we placed them at served agencies with whom we had MOUs (Memoranda Of Understanding). That plan had both pluses and minuses. Since there were several locations, it was easier for participants to get to one of the sites. Unfortunately, that resulted in some locations being well-manned while others had very few people. Also, although it was good that participants got to physically operate from some place they might actually be sent during an emergency, many of our served agencies are open 9-to-5 weekdays-only. In a few cases, they might let us use their facilities on a weekend (the only time when most of our operators could participate), but no served agency personnel would be there to interact with us. This year we had the added complication that the few served agencies where we could go all required that volunteers have background checks and special access badges. Only 19 of our 127 volunteers have such clearance.

As we struggled to figure out where to send everyone, I thought back to some of our earliest S.E.T.s.

"Why don't we find a centrally located public park and have everyone go there?" I suggested. "Once there, we'll deploy them to various spots around the park and have them set up independent 'posts'."

I figured that the served agency issue was diverting our attention from our larger goals, which were to get the participants used to setting up field stations, organizing and using multiple nets, passing formal traffic, and so forth. In other words, to practice our core skills.

Me, looking in better shape than I felt.

The ARES team leadership seemed to like the idea, but, of course, it's always much more complicated than it sounds. For example, which park? In major metropolitan areas like St. Louis, there are lots of them, but every one of them is strictly managed. If you want to do something like set up canopies and radio masts and string wires all over the place, you need a permit. And, there has to be an opening on the park schedule. Both of these issues have foiled the Field Day plans of many a local Amateur Radio club.

Fortunately for our team, we have a miracle worker in the form of Steve Wooten, KC0QMU. He is the team's EC (Emergency Coordinator). That is, he's the boss. And, he just happens to have formed a good relationship with the St. Louis County Park Rangers, whose headquarters is at Tilles Park. That park is very centrally located. Moreover, it is not possible to get a permit to hold an activity such as ours at the park during the fall and winter, because the County sets up a massive Christmas display there each year. It takes months to set it all up and take it all down again. But, as they had just barely started, we were given a permit anyway.

Like I said, Steve's a miracle worker.

Now to my part in all of this.

I had not spent much time working on, or even paying much attention to the details of the S.E.T. as they were developed. As the number 2 guy in the organization I should have, but health matters and other issues distracted me, and I let the S.E.T. planning slide by.

Big mistake. Fate (or Sod, or Finagle, or Murphy) pays attention to such lapses, and finds ways to throw them back in your face. So, on the morning of the exercise, I drove to Tilles Park expecting to manage just one post. Moreover, it was located in the one park shelter to which we had access, so I wouldn't have to set up a canopy or do anything too laborious. That was fine with me, as I wasn't feeling particularly well that day.

Gary, KD0CNZ (left) and Jackie, KE0HLC (right). It seems they really didn't need much mentoring at all.

I arrived at the park and went to the shelter, which would also serve as our "staging area". Two other Assistant Emergency Coordinators were there. Bob, WA4GDX, was going to be the Safety Officer, and Peter, N0MTH, was also going to operate at the same post as me, but focus on Winlink rather than voice messages. Steve would act as the Exercise Director.

Unfortunately, no one had brought the messages we planned to send at Post 1, where Peter and I would be located. Steve had not yet arrived, so I phoned him and asked if he could bring copies of the messages with him.

"Didn't you get my text?" Steve said.

Right then, my phone buzzed. Message waiting.

"Um, I think I just got it," I replied.

"I have a family emergency," Steve said. "I can't make it to the S.E.T."

My whole world turned upside down. If Steve couldn't make it, that meant I was in charge. And I only knew the basic outline of what was supposed to happen. Feeling a little sick, I went over to Bob and Peter.

"Steve can't make it," I said. "I'm assuming command."

Even as the words came out of my mouth, I couldn't believe that I was saying them. I'm assuming command!!? Who did I think I was, General Patton? What's wrong with "I will act as exercise director", or even "I'll take Steve's place"?

Stress. In moments of high stress, I tend to misplace large segments of my vocabulary.

To their credit, though, neither Bob nor Peter raised an eyebrow when I blurted out my unfortunate declaration, and that helped to calm me down.

Brian, KE0EYA, way out at Post 4 (somewhere behind the tennis courts)

Also, I have a strong sense of duty, so I knew that I had to pull myself together and get organized.

First things first. I let them know that Steve was going to email the Post 1 messages to Peter's phone. I then mentally reviewed the exercise schedule, which, fortunately, I had remembered. So far we weren't behind, but I needed to put together teams to go out into the park and set up remote posts. The team leaders had already been selected (and all of them had remembered to bring their messages), so my next task was to arrange for a good mix of experienced and inexperienced operators for each team. That wasn't too hard. It was a little more difficult to explain exactly where we were allowed to set up our remote posts. That involved a lot of pointing and hand-waving and statements like, "Down in that hole" or "Over by that fence". But everyone dutifully headed out in the directions that I had pointed (more or less), and it wasn't long before they were reporting that their posts had been set up.

My next task was to tell Gary, KD0CNZ and Jackie, KE0HLC, the two fellows whom I was going to mentor at Post 1, that they were on their own. I didn't feel too badly, as they'd each been to a field exercise before, and I wasn't too far away if something went awry.

"Where are our messages?" one of them asked.

"Oh. Um, ah....," I said, sagely.

That problem was solved when Peter, Gary, and Jackie exchanged cell phone numbers and distributed the Post 1 messages that way. Innovation saves the day.

Each of the posts had been assigned its own simplex frequency. I was fairly sure that everyone in the park would be able to reach each other via simplex, but we also had the St. Louis Metro ARES 2 meter repeater available to us. And it was located right there at the Ranger Station (see Up in the Air, Brave ARES Men!). If anyone couldn't hit that repeater, they should send their radio back to China. As a backup, they could probably yell in the direction of the antenna tower, and someone would hear the echo.

S.E.T. hot wash
The Hot Wash

Someone called in and asked, "Are we supposed to call on the main frequency and say that we have traffic to pass?"

Executive decision time. That one was easy, as I didn't have anyone assigned to be the net control operator.

"No," I replied. "Just switch to the frequency of the receiving post and tell them that you have traffic to pass."

"None of the messages have recipient posts on them."

"Just pick a post at random," I said. It really didn't matter which message went where, so long as everyone got some experience in handling traffic.

"The times on the messages don't make any sense."

I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth. The Fates really had it in for me that day.

"Send them at your own pace," I answered.

Incredibly, I received compliments on those seat-of-the-pants decisions during the hot wash.

"That really sped things up," someone said. "We didn't have long, boring waits between messages."

Anyway, the S.E.T. more-or-less ran smoothly after that. My final decision was to cut the exercise short by 15 minutes because storm clouds were approaching. I had everyone report back to "staging" for the hot wash (debriefing). I was fairly insistent about that, as some exercise participants have a tendency to just disappear once the on-air activity ends. In a real-life situation, you need to carefully keep track of your people, so I wanted everyone to come back and "sign out".

The hot wash was revealing. Obviously, some things hadn't been well planned, and just as obviously, the leadership (I, who had Assumed Command) was nowhere near as prepared as it should have been. But all-in-all I felt that the exercise had been a success. We achieved the fundamental goals and actually ran on time.

And, thankfully, I didn't lose anyone.

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