The Amateur Amateur: Our Net Controller is Missing

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
March 26, 2006

Something miraculous happened. It seems that when no net control station showed up on the air, some of the regular participants brought up the net on their own.

Some areas of the country have large, very active Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) groups; other areas have much smaller, less active groups. Many factors explain these extremes, including how often that region encounters disasters. California, for example, endures fires, earthquakes, floods and mudslides. I've actually heard those listed as that state's four seasons. Not surprisingly, California has prominent, well-organized ARES groups. More sedate (less troubled?) areas of the country, however, may not even have ARES groups.

Steve Wooten, KC0QMU

Steve Wooten, KC0QMU, bravely took on the duties of Emergency Coordinator.

St Louis County, Missouri, falls somewhere in the middle of the ARES continuum. We have a large enough population to support a substantial ARES group, but the local ARES organization has tended to grow, then decline. Again, there are many factors involved, but one of the main considerations is how often disasters occur here.

Oh, we have great disaster potential, but actual disasters are infrequent here. We did have significant flooding about a decade ago, but they called it "The Four Hundred-Year Flood." That should give you an idea of when we expect the next one. And earthquakes? Well, we get frequent warnings that "The Big One" is coming, but when it fails to materialize, we all get lax again.

The current incarnation of the St. Louis County ARES group is on the upswing. The Emergency Coordinator is a dynamic and personable young man named Steve Wooten, KC0QMU. Steve had his work cut out for him when he took the position two years ago. He not only had to build the organization practically from scratch, he also had to convince everyone to take the group seriously. After all, it had risen and fallen several times in the past.

One of the first things Steve focused on was the weekly 2 meter net. Ultimately such nets are meant as training sessions, but in the early days of the group they were more of a declaration: "We are here!"

The net was held every week, even if only two people checked in, even if the repeater was acting funky, even if it was Christmas Eve. Each week we made the statement, "Yes, we're still here. And, yes, we're serious." Gradually, people began to pay attention.

Empty chair

I was supposed to be sitting here when the net came up.

Net script

The radio, the script, and the schedule. All that's missing is the net controller.

Steve had a lot more to do than just run the net, so he appointed a Net Manager. He picked someone who was compulsive, understood the rules, was somewhat of a perfectionist, had a slight air of authority and was just a little bit scary. He picked me.

Well, I will not say that I single-handedly built up the net, because that's not true. If I had one good quality as Net Manager, it was that I listened to other people's suggestions. And there were a lot of good ones. The weekly net has changed a lot over the last few years. My feeling is that it's getting better. It certainly has a lot more participants than when we first started it.

We have four regular net controllers. They rotate weeks, meaning that each of them has to run the net about once a month. We also have volunteers who try the net control spot only one time, or perhaps just occasionally. Most of them find it terrifying the first time, but it's a great morale booster once they've gotten through it. There is a schedule showing who has net control station (NCS) duty for each week. There is also a back-up operator for each week. If neither the scheduled operator nor his backup come on the air, one of the two remaining regular net controllers is supposed to take over. I guess you could call it quadruple redundancy.

This system failed once.

The breakdown was both a miserable failure and a glorious success. It was miserable in that even with a scheduled operator and three back-up operators, none of them came on the air. It was even more miserable because I was the operator scheduled to run the net that night. Boy, was I embarrassed! I can't remember exactly what happened, other than Monday was a holiday and I got the days of the week messed up. I finally remembered that I was supposed to be on the air about a half-hour after I should have called up the net.

It wasn't until the next day that I found out that the backup operator had also missed the net, as had the other two regular net controllers.

Now, you might think that we would all have fallen on our respective swords over the incident or at least retired to the local bar to drown our sorrows. Instead, something miraculous happened. The net took place even without us.

It seems that when no NCS came on the air, some of the regular participants started talking to each other. A couple of them assumed that the absence of an NCS was a test, just to see what they would do. So they brought up the net on their own. One of them volunteered to be NCS, another volunteered to be backup. They found a copy of a generic net script on the group's Web site. Then they ran the net and filed a net activity report with the Emergency Coordinator. They even passed formal traffic.

I may have been embarrassed about missing NCS duty that night, but I was tremendously proud of how the ARES members reacted. They didn't need any authority figure to tell them what to do. They saw the problem. They knew what needed to be done. They knew how to do it. And they did it.

If I had any doubts about the dedication of the members or about any of them not taking the ARES mission seriously, they vanished that night. Well done, ladies and gentlemen, well done indeed!

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].

© 2006 American Radio Relay League

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