The Amateur Amateur: Ain't No Place to Run Net Control
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
Nice ride, but not so great as a Net Control Station
During my involvement with
various Amateur Radio emergency communications organizations, I have
run many nets. Whether for Skywarn, hospitals, or ARES (Amateur Radio
Emergency Service), there were certain similarities to these nets.
Heck, I even wrote some of the scripts. But there were also
differences, and more often than I would've expected, surprises. One
thing I learned is that even a NCO (Net Control Operator) with a lot
of nets under his belt should not become too complacent. The
unexpected will always find a way to pop up and bite you on the nose.
For several years now St. Louis
Metro ARES has run a simplex exercise, as you never know if the
repeaters are going to fail. When running simplex from my home, on
the wrong side of a hill in north St. Louis County, I always had
difficulty reaching virtually everyone else in the county. My
contacts were usually limited to a few other operators living in or
near my suburban home in Florissant, Missouri. This year I wanted to
see if I could improve the situation. (In fact, I wanted to change
the entire focus of the simplex exercise, but that's another story.)
In any case, St. Louis Metro ARES
divided the metro area into four operating zones to better manage the
various lumps, bumps, hills and depressions in the area. I
volunteered to be the NCO for the northernmost zone during this
year's exercise. But this time, instead of operating from my home, I
decided I would find a high spot somewhere in Florissant and operate
from my vehicle.
Well, that turned out to be both
a great idea and an awful idea. Here's what happened.
First, obviously, I needed to
find an elevated location. I could find plenty of hills and humps,
but due to lots of trees and buildings, couldn't get a sense of their
height relative to the overall terrain.
No, forget terrain maps. I could
never seem to make sense of them, and none of them were marked “Here
is the spot you want, Gary”. Moreover, if there's an app for
that, I sure can't find it.
Ummm, which one was the net script?
Nevertheless, I did find a likely
location just about a mile due south of my home. It was in the
parking lot of a mostly empty strip mall (the tavern was still open
for business). It overlooked a nice drop-off to the south. I figured
that if anyone to the south of me could hear my transmissions, it
would be while I was operating from that spot. Just to be sure, I
notified a few ARES operators in my zone that I would be running
tests the week before the exercise.
The tests went well, with all
contacts coming in loud and clear. Thus encouraged, I felt that I was
ready for the exercise the following week.
Well, I was and I wasn't. On the
day of the exercise I made a list, checked it twice, packed
everything I would need into my SUV, checked everything again, stuck
ARES magnetic signs on my vehicle, and headed for the strip mall
parking lot. Once there, I realized what I had forgotten.
No, it wasn't anything physical. What I'd forgotten was how uncomfortable
it would be operating net control from inside my SUV.
done it once before (see Into the Deep End (Two Garys in a Car)),
but that had involved two of us working net control together. One of
us operated the radio, while the other handled the paperwork. Despite
the cramped quarters, we were able to manage everything reasonably
This time, though, I was alone. I
had paperwork spread all over the passenger seat, the dashboard,
propped up against the steering wheel, and... well, you get the
picture. Even with a clipboard, there was no stable surface so that I
could easily write things down. When the action started, I was
continually scrambling to grab the microphone, grab my pen, grab the
net script, or grab whatever else needed to be grabbed. I really
missed having a second operator working with me.
So, how did it go? Pretty well,
all things considered. The parking lot turned out to be an ideal
location, and I picked up many more stations than in any previous
simplex exercise we'd held. I even heard one station far to the south
of me, well outside of my own operating zone. Most of the
participating operators stayed with me through even the optional part
of the exercise, during which I read an ARRL Radiogram and asked
those copying it down to actually deliver it. I will say, though,
that I was relieved when it was finally over.
Like any exercise or event, it
isn't over until the documentation is done. I headed home to complete
that task. There was no point in remaining in the parking lot, since
the on-air portion of the exercise had been completed.
paperwork took much of the rest of the day, with occasional
interruptions from people delivering the Radiogram to me by phone or
email. Two operators actually came to my home and delivered them to
me by hand. One note I included in my after-action report was that if
at all possible, the Net Control Station should not
be in located in a vehicle such as mine.
I was glad I wouldn't have to do
But fate had other plans. Two
weeks later, I found myself in exactly the same situation.
I said that I was involved with
various Amateur Radio emergency organizations. The simplex exercise
was for our local ARES team. But I'm also part of the St. Louis
Hospital Amateur Radio Network. Different parent organization,
different footprint, but the same Amateur Radio leadership.
Grab the pen... no wait... grab the microphone...
And I'm the nominal Net Control
I run net control from the St.
Louis County Department of Public Health and test its own Amateur
Radios at the same time. Besides their ham gear, they also have an
extensive array of other communications equipment located in the same
place, a conference room. This is not normally a problem for me, as
the Hospital Amateur Radio Net takes place at the very beginning of
the business day, well before anyone wants to hold a meeting.
Until the Coronavirus struck,
When I arrived at the Public
Health building to run the March hospital net, I found the conference
room already occupied. Having a pretty good idea of what was going
on, I figured it was unlikely that the meeting was going to end any
time soon. I grabbed my gear and retreated back to my vehicle. It
looked like I was in for another uncomfortable session of running net
control from the front seat of my SUV.
On the plus side it was a shorter
net and I could use a repeater instead of operating simplex.
On the minus side I really had to
scramble to get the script, the radio and everything else set up in
time to start the net. I did, but just barely. And, of course, it was
just as difficult as it had been two weeks earlier.
Unusual circumstances, yes. Coincidence, sure.
But really, folks. Should I just
go ahead, rip out the back seat of my SUV, and install a much more
comfortable, permanent Net Control Station?
(Email = [email protected])