The Amateur Amateur: Into the Deep End
Two Garys in a car

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
July 2018

Department of Public Health
St. Louis County Department of Public Health

Emergency preparedness is all about understanding that things will go sideways, no matter how well you plan. You have to learn to adapt, and quickly. This is the story of how I was training my own backup net control operator, and how he unexpectedly got thrown right into the deep end.

It's called the St. Louis Hospital Amateur Radio Net, or HARN. It's not part of ARES, as its parent organization, the St. Louis Area Regional Response System (STARRS) has a two-state multi-county footprint. Nevertheless, many of its volunteer Amateur Radio operators belong to both groups, and the lead operators are the same people.

HARN holds a region-wide Amateur Radio net for hospitals on the second Friday of each month. The net control operator works out of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health, and calls each hospital that is scheduled to participate that month. It's usually an interesting net, with some scheduled hospitals not responding, agencies not on the schedule checking in (sometimes even an airport will check in), and operators reporting that they went to the hospital, but (1) couldn't find the person with a key to the radio room, or, more likely, (2) the radio was in a conference room that was in use at the time. There are always surprises.

I'm the net control operator. Once a month I go to the Department of Public Health, run the HARN net, and then check into one or two other health-related nets in the area. Afterward, I will attempt to reach the Department of Health and Senior Services in Jefferson City, the Missouri state capital. I usually don't have a lot of luck on that last one. Band conditions and all that.

As I'd missed a few nets due to health issues, it was decided that I should train someone to be my backup. We already had a few volunteers who could run the HARN net from other locations, but we needed someone to become familiar with the Department of Public Health's layout, personnel and procedures. Help came in the form of Gary Van House, KE0MNR.

DPH radios
Amateur Radios at the Department of Public Health

Gary (the other one, not me) had gone to the DPH once before, but that was mainly a meet-and-greet and to show him the equipment. I did all the operating that time. We scheduled a second visit for him, and this time he would actually run the HARN net himself.

Let me note here that the Amateur Radios, and all of the other Department of Public Health emergency communications, are located in a conference room. That has never been a problem. My net and radio tests are always on the room's schedule. My only visitor in the conference room is my DPH contact, Mr K, who tests one of the other radios on the same day. We chat for a while, them he listens to the Region C MOSWIN net and responds when called. In the meantime, I struggle to hear Jefferson City on my headphones.

May 11th rolled around and it was time for Mr Van House to get his feet wet. We met in the DPH parking lot and went in together. None of my regular contacts seemed to be at their desks, so Gary and I went right to the conference room. We stepped inside, and...

There was a meeting in progress.


May I say that this had never happened before. Moreover, as the HARN net starts at 8:10 AM, we arrived at about 7:45. Who could be holding a meeting that early?

We backed out and quietly closed the door.

A few seconds later Mr K stepped out and apologized, saying that the director of the Department of Public Health had called the meeting, but that it was almost over. We should just hang loose.

Gary and I made our way to the break room, sat down, and nervously watched the clock.

"Do you have a mobile radio in your car?" Gary asked. "I don't have one set up yet."

Not the roomiest net control station

I nodded absently, still watching as the clock ticked away the minutes.

Okay, decision time, I told myself. Testing the Department of Public Health radios could wait. Even training Gary to run the net could be put off until another day. What could not be delayed was the HARN net itself. There were numerous operators at hospitals all over the region waiting to check in to the net

And we were supposed to run it.

"Right," I said. "Grab your stuff."

We hustled down to the first floor and rushed out the door. I bleep-bleeped my SUV open and we jumped inside.

You need to understand that I do not have an ocean-liner-sized testosterone-laden monster of a SUV. Mine is more like a sedan with a very big trunk. And, while it's roomy enough to ride around in, it's not very spacious when it comes to spreading out papers and using your lap as a desktop. With mere minutes before the net was supposed to start, we got ourselves organized and I gave Gary a crash course on operating my radio.

I can't imagine how Gary felt about being thrown into the deep end like that. He didn't look stressed, but at the very least, I think he was a little uncertain. I know that I was pretty stressed, but I was determined to act like this was all normal. I envisioned Geoffrey Rush in the movie The King's Speech speaking softly and calmly as he prepared stuttering King George VI to give a radio announcement that Britain was at war.

Gary did fine. Occasionally I'd whisper something like, "Sloooow down... give the hospital time to respond." I could see Gary nod and relax his hand on the microphone. He did all of the on-air work and I kept track of all the logging.

Two Garys: KB0H (l) KE0MNR (r)

Thank you Geoffrey Rush. You got two nervous Gary's through a tense situation.

I think Gary looked relieved when the net ended, but perhaps I was just projecting my own feelings. In any case, we wrapped up our notes and I assured him that I would do all the nasty paperwork once I got home.

Having survived the HARN net, we decided to go back into the building and see if the meeting had finished. If so, there were a few other nets we might be able to join, and the DPH radios still needed to be tested.

We checked in with Mr K, who looked surprised to see us.

"The guard told me that you two had left!" he said.

"No, we just went out to my car so we could run the hospital net," I replied. "If the room is free, we'll go test the Amateur Radios now."

"Absolutely!" he said. "Sorry about the mix-up earlier."

"Think nothing of it," I said, casually. "We do this all the time."

Gary didn't bat an eye when I said this.

He's a fast leaner.

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