The Amateur Amateur: Simplexity

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
November 24, 2004

How a SET became a "RET," and everything worked out okay in the end.

The ARRL had suggested October 2-3 as the weekend during which Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) teams across the US should a conduct Simulated Emergency Test (SET). I'm a member of the St Louis County, Missouri, ARES team--a relatively young group--and I didn't feel that we were ready to handle a SET. My rationale was that since we did not yet have any served agencies, and hence had no emergency plans, there was nothing to test.

Steve Wooten, KC0QMU

Steve, KC0QMU, our EC. During the test he was ARES East.

Our Emergency Coordinator Steve Wooten, KC0QMU, felt otherwise. He saw the SET as an opportunity for us to test our capabilities, find out what our strengths and weaknesses were and perhaps even get a little bit of public exposure.

I couldn't fault his logic, but I didn't know what we could do. We didn't have the connections or staffing to mount any kind of "real" simulated emergency. Still, Steve had his heart set on our group doing something during the SET weekend, so I wracked my brain to see if I could come up with some sort of exercise for us to do.

What I eventually devised was an event that would test our capacity to communicate without using repeaters (gasp!). We would place ARES field operators at the four compass points of the county, then ask the Amateur Radio community at large to try to contact these stations. Each participant would be deployed to the nearest public park. Using only a handheld transceiver, that station then would call the field operator closest to his or her location. If successful, the participant would also try contacting the other field operators.

A test controller would stand by on a repeater to explain the event, answer questions and log all participants who could not reach a field operator. Since this could not truly be called a SET, I concocted the term Resource Evaluation Test, or RET--just one letter shy being a SET, get it?

I wrote up the details of my RET idea and sent them out to various ARES team members to evaluate. Our regular ARES meeting was coming up soon, and we planned to discuss the ARRL SET and what we might do to participate. With only two weeks to go until the official SET weekend, we had to make a decision quickly.

I guess everyone had already expected me to come up with a dynamite plan, because no one else presented one at the meeting. That was both heartening and daunting. Anyway, my plan was adopted with very few changes. They even kept the name RET. About the only change was that at its conclusion, a district-wide (multi-county) HF net would activate, and the participating counties would report the number of people who had taken part in their individual SETs.

We quickly found four people to serve as the field operators. Each was assigned a catchy tactical call sign such as ARES North, ARES South, and so on. I had planned to be one of them, but the addition of the district-wide net changed my role. At the time, I was the only active member of our team who had an HF station (as I said, our group was relatively young), so I had to act as our county's liaison to the district-wide net. I wouldn't have time work in the field and then dash home to set up for the district-wide net. So instead of being a field operator, I was assigned the job of test director--the guy who sat on the repeater and refereed the whole thing.

Let me tell you, the tactical call sign Test Director was enough to swell anyone's ego. But at this point I still saw the whole RET as little more than a publicity event, so I didn't think much of it.

Antenna stand

Some operators in the field used these mobile antenna mast stands, built and contributed by John, N0UFB.

I wrote up a script for the test director and optional scripts for the field operators. The rules of the RET were written up and put on our ARES team's Web site. Announcements were made on various club nets and at club meetings. The repeater trustee was notified of our intentions. And finally, there was nothing left to do but wait for October 2 to arrive.

I really didn't know expect. The long range weather forecast said that it might rain. I figured that even if it didn't, only a few ARES members would participate. I didn't think many ham operators outside of the ARES group would take part. And having worked simplex quite often with my wife Nancy, I figured anyone who did check in would be able to reach at least two of our field operators and maybe all of them. Thankfully, I'm not a betting man, because nothing went the way I thought it would.

The first indication I had that things were taking a different turn from the expected was when I received a phone call from Chuck Wehking, KC0QKS. Chuck was scheduled to be the field operator covering the southern portion of the county.

"There's a lot of chatter on the nets about the upcoming RET," he said.

Oh? Good or bad? I wondered. Chuck seemed to think it was a good sign. I wasn't so certain.

Saturday October 2 arrived. It had rained Friday, but there was no precipitation in the forecast for that day. Nancy and I ate lunch early so that I would have plenty of time to get home, sit in front of my rig, and worry pointlessly. (Nancy will tell you that I am very good at that.) I tuned my transceiver to the repeater frequency and set up a scanner to receive the four simplex frequencies that would be used.

Just before the official start of the RET, each of the field operators checked in on the repeater to let me know they were in position. Nancy jumped in her car and headed for the nearest park. I was most gratified that she'd decided to get involved, although I kind of wished she'd stuck around to hold my hand.

"Just put the dog on your lap. She'll take care of you," Nancy said before leaving.

I tried, but Ariel wasn't partial to the buzz, hums, squawks, and spits coming from my equipment. She retreated upstairs leaving me to tough it out alone.

At precisely 1 PM I got on the air and started the test. Reading from my script with a firm voice (and slightly shaky hands), I described the exercise and explained the rules. When I finished the script I paused and waited for the anticipated surge of messages saying, "Would you repeat that?"

And then I got my first big surprise. People did call in with reports from time to time, but no one asked me to repeat the instructions. No one asked me for the simplex frequencies. It seemed that everyone, everyone, had carefully read the instructions from our Web site, written down the frequencies, and knew precisely what to do.

Gary as test director

"This little ham stayed home." Me, acting as the Test Director

I made periodic announcements during the next half hour repeating the instructions and explaining what we were doing. Between announcements I listened to the scanner. Its antenna system was less than optimal, but I expected to hear something. As it was, I only heard one station on the scanner during the entire test. It was Nancy, calling, "ARES North from N0NJ" over and over.

Nancy later told me that she could hear Eric Bueneman, N0UIH, the north county field operator, but apparently he couldn't hear her.

At 1:30 PM the four field operators switched over to the repeater and gave me their totals and my second big surprise. Steve (ARES East), Chuck (ARES South), Eric (ARES North), and Bob Ernst, KC0NRK, who was ARES West, together had a grand total of eight contacts. Eight more had called me on the repeater to report failure to contact any of the field operators.

I had anticipated a much better outcome on simplex. But I had also predicted a much smaller turnout. My little RET had presented me with some unexpected results.

They say that it ain't over till the fat lady sings (or, to quote Yogi Berra, "It ain't over till it's over"). The equivalent in an ARES exercise is that it ain't over until you've had a debriefing. Scheduling one turned out to be the most difficult assignment of all, but we eventually did get together to discuss the RET. And it was during the debriefing that I realized that Steve had been right all along and I had been wrong. The RET had not been merely a publicity stunt. It had been a useful exercise and had most definitely been a learning experience.

I'm still scratching my head over what it all means. But I'm sure I'll have at least some of it figured out by the time the next SET rolls around.

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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