The Amateur Amateur: Ain't No Place to Run Net Control

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
April 2020

Gary's RAV4
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.

papers on passenger seat
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.

I'd 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 well.

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.

The 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 that again.

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.

Microphone hanging from mirror
Grab the pen... no wait... grab the microphone...

And I'm the nominal Net Control Operator.

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, that is.

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])

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

Back to The Amateur Amateur home page Back to Past Columns page