The Amateur Amateur: Wake Me Before the Disaster Starts

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
April 28, 2004

Oh boy, I was in trouble now. My credibility was at stake.

Even if you don't live in the Midwest, you've probably heard that we have tornadoes here. But you might not know that we also have earthquakes. There was a monster of a quake near New Madrid (pronounced New MAD-rid), Missouri back in 1811, and it changed the course of the Mississippi River. People around here have been talking about that one ever since.

Whistler portable power station

The portable power station. Note the Anderson Powerpole connectors

Some say that the next "big one" is overdue. Since earthquakes tend not to post schedules, I don't really know. I will agree, however, that there probably will be another "big one" in this area sooner or later.

Since earthquakes are a fact of life here, the Central United States Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC) was formed. Its primary mission is to help mitigate the effects of quakes in the region.

Among its various activities CUSEC holds periodic earthquake drills. They held one in March 2004, and I was asked by a local ARES official to participate. Reading the plan for the drill I found that several nets would be operating on the 40 and 75-meter bands and that all operators were to use emergency power only.

I figured I could handle the assignment. I had HF gear and I had a neat little gizmo called a "portable power station." Basically it's a carrying case with a 12-V sealed lead acid battery in it. It has a few bells and whistles such as convenience plugs and circuitry to prevent overcharging. If I ran my HF transceiver at about 5 W, the portable power station should be able to handle the task.

The drill was to take place on a Sunday afternoon. On Saturday evening I went down to my basement shack to make a couple of quick-connect plugs (using Anderson Powerpoles) so that I could easily switch my HF transceiver from transformer power to battery power. It didn't take very long--except when I tested the new plugs, I found that the battery in my portable power station was dead!

Oh boy, I was in trouble now. I'd promised the ARES official that I was up for the job. My credibility was at stake. It was too late in the evening to go hunting for a fresh battery, so I'd have to wait until the next day.

Communications battery

The Big Battery: Do not use unless brain is functioning properly.

On Sunday morning I drove to a nearby battery specialty store only to find it closed. A sign on the door said that it would open at noon. Desperate (the drill started at 2 PM) I stopped at a hardware store and picked up two 6-V lantern batteries. I figured that if I connected them in series they might just have enough juice to power my transceiver.

Nope, they didn't.

It looked like my last hope was to get back to the battery store as soon as it opened. Circumstances, however, prevented me from making that trip until 1:30 PM, just 30 minutes before the drill was to begin. The store was open, thankfully, and it did have the replacement battery I needed. And since I was there, I bought another, much bigger battery for more prolonged operation.

My wife Nancy was with me. She carried the replacement battery to our car, complaining about how heavy it was. I couldn't answer her because I was lugging the bigger battery, which seemed to weigh as much as the anchor of the Titanic. Talking was not an option. Even breathing was difficult. I dropped it into the back seat of my car (there is still a dent) and jumped into the driver's seat.

As we headed for home Nancy chuckled, "Of course in a real disaster they'd be sure to give you advanced notice so that you could pop out for fresh batteries!"

Yeah, yeah, I thought. I'd give you a clever retort if I could just catch my breath.

We got home at 1:45 PM. I just barely had time to get everything ready and be on the air for the earthquake drill. First, though, I wanted to check the replacement battery. I didn't know for sure that it was charged. If it wasn't, then the whole trip to the battery store was for nothing. I hastily took a reading with my voltmeter. The needle didn't move. Phooey. The battery must be flat.

Smoked voltmeter

The Little Meter That Could: It took a cooking and kept on working.

But wait. What's that smell? Why was the basement filling with smoke? Looking around I determined that my voltmeter was the source of the smoke and stench and I had clearly just fried it. This earthquake drill was turning into a real disaster, for me, anyway.

I put my smoldering voltmeter on the floor, well away from anything flammable, and started installing the replacement battery in the portable power station. The battery obviously did have a charge, and in my haste I had used the voltmeter improperly. Naturally the new battery didn't want to go in and naturally I couldn't get the case closed. The whole project seemed to be spiraling out of control.

I did manage to get my station up and running by 2:05 PM. Judging by the polite-but-tense conversation going on between the controllers from two conflicting nets I wasn't the only one having problems. But plenty already has been written about the earthquake drill of March 2004, so I won't go over it all again. By 3:30 PM it became obvious that the net was in chaos, and I never was able to check in. I shut off my transceiver.

Sighing, I looked around the basement and started surveying the damage. It wasn't as bad as I had feared. It took only a few minutes of patient work to get the replacement battery properly installed in the portable power station. And a careful examination of my smoked voltmeter showed that it still worked. Some magnificent designer had allowed for the possibility that someone like me would connect things wrong and had built in a bypass circuit, just in case. (Whoever you are, thank you!)

Even though I had not checked in, the experience had not been for naught. I learned that I should check all of my equipment well in advance of any planned event. In addition, I need to slow down and think carefully before attaching anything to a power source.

As for the bigger battery, I'm afraid to touch the thing.

Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's name -- "The Amateur Amateur" -- suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related Web page. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail [email protected].

© 2004 American Radio Relay League


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