The Amateur Amateur: Blue Sails in the Sunrise

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
March 2018

Car and Canopy
Zone 1 base, such as it is

Note: Some years ago I took part in an ARES Simulated Emergency Test. I started writing a column about what took place, but for some reason, never finished it. I just recently rediscovered that column and decided to go ahead and complete it. Here it is.

The ARRL recommends that Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) groups hold a yearly Simulated Emergency Test in October. Our team, St. Louis Metro ARES, follows this suggestion. That would be fine, except that our S.E.T.s usually take place outdoors. The weather in Missouri can be iffy at the best of times, but October... well, you just never know what will happen.

While the S.E.T. as a whole would be managed from some nice, cozy indoor location, my job during the exercise was to set up a base in the parking lot of a hospital. I would direct operations for "Zone 1", which covered north St. Louis County.

On this particular October morning, it was cold and breezy. At least I had anticipated that, and had prepared. Or, so I thought. I'd brought two coats with me, one heavy and one light. I'd brought a canopy, complete with zip-on sides to keep the wind-rain-snow-whatever out. My wife, Nancy (N0NJ), helped me to unload my SUV and set up the canopy. She even provided a box of doughnuts. As she had prior commitments that day, she wished me luck and took off.

As soon as she left, I realized that I was going to have problems. The canopy kept trying to blow away.

Yes, it did come with spikes that I could have pounded into the ground to hold it steady, but hospital security cruised by quite frequently. While I did have permission to be there, I didn't want to give our group a bad reputation by making holes in the hospital's parking lot.

I wound up using my tool bag, camera case, and whatever else I could find to weigh down the corners of the canopy, but if a wind gust came through, it became a blue sail, gliding off toward the sunrise.

As we were trying to simulate an actual call out, participants weren't told in advance where they would be going. The exercise director made an announcement on the main frequency and asked who could respond. As participants checked in, the director asked for their locations. He then instructed each of them to switch to the frequency of the specific zone in which they were.

I let the "remote post" operators work from inside their cars. Hypothermia wasn't part of the plan.

Every emergency communications manual that I've ever read (or written myself) says that you need two operators at each station. During the initial phase of the exercise, though, I was one operator manning two stations. I had to monitor the main S.E.T. channel, and also guide participants to the Zone 1 staging area, my canopy, on the Zone 1 channel.

For reasons that have eluded us, we tend to get very low participation in north county. Mid county (Zone 2) and south county (Zone 3) have much higher participation rates. Nevertheless, we do get some response in Zone 1, so I took calls and gave folks directions to my location.

Two people never made it. I later heard that one of them wound up in an adjacent county. I have no idea what happened to the other one.

Three people succeeded in finding me. That would have been just enough to man two of the "Zone 1 Base" stations, according to the manual, so I had to ignore the manual and improvise. I dispatched two of the participants to other parts of the parking lot ("Post 1" and "Post 2"), and kept the most inexperienced operator with me. Although the other two had brought some field equipment, including tables and chairs, I let them operate from inside their vehicles, where they could stay warm. Hypothermia was not part of the exercise plan.

As for me, I was rushing around so much that I never could decide which coat to wear. All I knew for sure was that I alternated between shivering and sweating, and that my shirttails were perpetually hanging out.

Control table
Zone 1 HQ: A table, two chairs, several radios, and a box of doughnuts

Now I was trying to keep track of three frequencies, direct incoming and outgoing traffic, distribute traffic to my satellite "posts", and teach the poor newbie who was sitting next to me. Everything had gone off the rails early in the game, so I figured my job was to at least try to keep the train headed in the right direction. I know I made a lot of mistakes, but that's the point of participating in exercises. Discover your weak points and then work to improve them.

It was a very busy morning. Besides all of the official activity, we spent a lot of time chasing down brochures that had blown away, and frequently, retrieving the canopy itself. It later occurred to me that had I brought a wind-powered generator, I could've powered all of my radios. (And, just as importantly, used the generator to anchor one corner of the canopy.)

Hospital security stopped and chatted a few times, but, in violation of all stereotypes, steadfastly refused to partake of the doughnuts.

Two women from a nearby subdivision wandered over to see what was happening. They had heard that there was some sort of shoe sale going on and wondered if that's what we were doing. (There was a shoe sale going on, but it was in the hospital lobby. Really strange things take place in hospitals these days.)

It was disappointing, though given the weather, not surprising, that the security cops and shoe-seeking women were our only visitors. Neither group took any of our brochures.

I must say that I was quite impressed with my little group. None of them were overly familiar with formal message handling, but they did quite well just the same. I'll take a tiny bit of credit myself for handing out "participant guides" containing a maps, forms, explanations, and so forth. At least that part of my preparations went according to plan.

The evening before the exercise, I had carefully packed my SUV. I'd loaded everything in the order that I wanted to retrieve it.

Packing up after the exercise, though, everything went into my vehicle helter-skelter.

I think the box of doughnuts wound up at the bottom of the pile.

Each of the participants later said that it had been quite an experience and that they had learned a lot.

That was a good moment for me.

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