The Amateur Amateur: Net (Controller) Quake

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
September 1, 2004

I briefly entertained the idea of shutting off the lights during the drill but quickly realized that I would not be able to shuffle a net script, check-in list and everything else I needed in the dim glow of a kerosene lantern.

Okay, I've been a net control operator before--many times, in fact. But when I was asked to be the net controller for an earthquake drill here in Missouri, my stomach did a little quaking of its own. There is just something about doing new and public things that gets my knees trembling.

I accepted the assignment nonetheless. I knew that I could do it, and I knew that it wouldn't be anywhere near as nerve wracking as my first attempt at being a net controller. That was back when my wife Nancy and I were taking the Level I ARRL Amateur Radio Emergency Communications course. I was doing one of the homework assignments, which was something like "Volunteer to act as the net controller for a local ARES net."

Nancy & Gary at radio

Nancy was sitting next to me critiquing my performance. Talk about pressure!

I was already nervous, but what was really causing me to sweat bullets was the fact that Nancy was sitting next to me doing her own homework assignment: "Monitor a local net, and write a critique of the net controller's performance."

Talk about pressure!

Anyway, my job during the earthquake drill was to run the local VHF net, then a half-hour later, get on the district-wide HF net and report the total number of check-ins I'd received.


Word about the upcoming earthquake drill passed through the Amateur Radio community fairly quickly. Everyone knew the date, but for some reason everyone had the time wrong. Even I had difficulty keeping it straight. According to the official instructions, the main drill was to start at 12:30 PM local time. I don't know why, but just about every time the drill was mentioned on the air, the start time was given as noon. Several Web sites also had it listed that way.

"Why do they keep getting it wrong?" I complained. About then I discovered that I, too, had posted noon as the start time on the local ARES Web site. I can't imagine what mass psychological quirk made us all keep saying "noon," even those of who knew better.

Other than publicizing the event, there wasn't much preparation that I needed to do. A couple of ARES officials and I wrote net scripts, compared them, rewrote them and eventually put them in a blender to see what the amalgam would look like. (Since I was going to have to read it, I was allowed to pick the version I liked the most.)

Other preparations included making sure I had battery power (see my April 2004 column, "The Amateur Amateur: Wake Me Before the Disaster Starts"). No problem. This time my battery power was ready.

Pile of papers on roof

I went to pick up the folder, and there was the net script.

Was there anything else that I needed to do? I thought, "Well, if this were a real emergency and there was no electricity, my basement shack would be in the dark." I briefly entertained the idea of shutting off the lights during the drill--for the sake of creating an aura of realism--but quickly realized that I would not be able to shuffle a net script, check-in list and everything else I needed in the dim glow of a kerosene lantern. Maybe next time. (I know, I know, but I'm working on it. I'd appreciate suggestions, especially concerning 12 V light sources.)

Anyway, if I'm going to trip over a dog toy in the dark and break my leg, I'd rather it be during something other than a simulated emergency. That would be making things too realistic.

The day of the earthquake drill arrived. I was ready. More than ready. If anything, I was over-prepared. Nancy and I ate lunch early, then I settled into my shack and went over everything for the thousandth time. I opened the folder containing all of the paperwork and documentation concerning the drill and went through it all one more time.

Instructions, frequencies, net script ... whoa, where was the net script? There was no net script! How could I have failed to put the net script in the folder!? Quick! Did I have time to print a copy from my computer? Which computer had a copy? Where?

In my sudden panic I knocked over the folder. I bent down and picked it up and saw the net script nestled among all the other papers. It wasn't missing after all. I sagged into my chair. Okay, calm down. This is a very simple drill. No need to get hysterical.

Power distribution panel

Whew! Thankfully I had remembered to reconnect the battery charger.

At precisely noon I went on the air and announced that if anyone was standing by for the earthquake drill, it would begin at 12:30, not noon. I apologized for the confusion and signed off. I played FreeCell on my computer for a while to help settle my nerves. When 12:30 finally rolled around I started the drill.

Everything went fine during the check-in period of the VHF net. I read the net script and almost everyone followed the instructions I gave. Thankfully, everyone used standard phonetics when giving their call signs. It worked like a well-oiled machine, and it was all over before I knew it.

Ah, but that was the VHF net.

My next job was to check-in to the district-wide net and report my totals. This net was to be held on 40 meters, with backup frequencies on the 80 meter band.

Iono, the laughing sky god, was in full humor that day, though, and both bands were practically useless. I did manage to check into the district net, but I was practically the only county that was able to do so. Net control was in the adjacent county, so I suspect that what signals we were able to exchange were via ground wave propagation. I later heard that conditions were much the same all over the state.

For those two bands at least, the sky was a lead wall that day.

The drill was over, though, and I felt that I had done okay. I filled out several reports, made entries in my log, made a notation to look into emergency lighting, and left the basement. All was well. Unless . . .

I wonder if I remembered to reconnect the emergency battery to its charger? Er, excuse me, I'll be right back.

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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