The Amateur Amateur: Aftershock, Part 1

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
June 4, 2006

As the director of the "Department of Brilliant Ideas," it was up to me to come up with some exercises for our ARES team to do.

Gary and Craig

Craig (standing) and I trying to work out last minute details of Aftershock.

Aftershock promotional button

Part of the Aftershock promotion. Unfortunately, the letters don't jiggle on the button.

Sandbagged antenna mast base

Craig's sandbag field mast mount is well known within our group.

Sometimes ambition can lead you astray. You wind up going down unexpected paths through unfamiliar and ever more disquieting landscapes. But sometimes, just when you've become convinced that you'll never find you way back, you suddenly discover that you've reached your destination. Such was the case with an emergency exercise we called "Aftershock."

Our Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) group is still growing and establishing its niche in the community. I am one of the Assistant Emergency Coordinators. I have a very specific set of duties, but my unofficial tasks--and hence, the most important ones--are to make things run smoothly and to come up with brilliant ideas.

We knew from the very inception of the organization that exercises would be very important. They would serve as training tools, of course, but they would also focus attention on us and help to bring in new people. Initially we simply joined in existing exercises such as regional earthquake drills, but it quickly became apparent that we would have to create our own exercises at some point.

As the director of the "Department of Brilliant Ideas," it was up to me to come up with some exercises for us to do. For two years we ran a simplex exercise we dubbed a Resource Evaluation Test, held on the date of the annual ARRL Simulated Emergency Test weekend. (We came up with RET because it sounded like SET.)

After a while I realized that we needed much more than a single yearly exercise. I talked to Steve Wooten, KC0QMU, our Emergency Coordinator, and he agreed that we should try to hold quarterly exercises. Well, it was my idea, but as soon as I had permission to implement it, I realized that it was too ambitious. It's not that I was bereft of ideas -- it's that I didn't have enough time to develop and run four exercises a year.

So I went back to Steve and said, "Is it okay if I recruit a small team to help me develop these exercises?" He said that I could, so the first person I approached was Craig Hirsh, K0CMH. As it turned out, I didn't have to recruit anyone else. Craig was not only a fount of clever ideas for exercises, he had the energy and drive to plan and run them.

And now we come right back to ambition. Craig's plan for our first exercise of the year caused my eyes to bug out. Oh, it was very clever, very innovative. It was also as ambitious as the Allied landing at Normandy in World War II.

"Craig, this is pretty good," I said in my best diplomatic voice, "but let's save it for later, when we have a lot more experience under our belts. For our first effort, why don't we just focus on the basic things we need to teach our people?"

"Okay," he replied. "Like what?"

"Handling formal messages," I said.

Fortunately, Craig is a very easy-going fellow. He put away his plans for the invasion of Europe and started drafting a much-simpler traffic-handling exercise. I still felt that it was a bit too complex, but I got caught up in Craig's enthusiasm and went along with what he had designed.

It really was Craig's baby. I know that we were theoretically a team, but I had so many demands on my time that I contributed very little to the planning of the exercise. About the only thing I was adamant about was how we presented it.

"Two things," I said. "First, we need some jazzy name for the exercise. I want people to get excited about it. I want to draw them into it."

"How about `Aftershock'?" said Craig.


"What's the second thing?"

"Do not mention that it is a message-handling exercise," I said.

From the Amateur Radio Emergency Communications Course (ARECC) and from experienced operators we knew that our primary function during a real emergency would be to handle formal written messages. Accordingly, we made quite a bit of traffic-handling information and training materials available to the members of our ARES group.

We also arranged for messages from the National Traffic System (NTS) to be passed on our weekly ARES net. The problem was that practically none of our members was interested in pursuing this training.

That's why I decided that our first big exercise should be about handling formal messages. It's also why I decided not to advertise that fact. What we did instead was to play up the angle that this was a post-earthquake disaster exercise. We didn't exactly keep the message-handling aspect a secret, but we also didn't draw attention to it.

We publicized the event heavily. We mentioned it on the air every chance we got. We promoted it on our Web site. Bob Ernst, KC0NRK, even went so far as to come up with a logo, the word "Aftershock" in letters that jiggled when you called up the Web page. I made up Aftershock buttons with the logo on them, but unfortunately I couldn't make the letters jiggle.

We asked everyone interested to sign up in advance because we needed to distribute special packages to those people who were going to participate. It was only after they received their packages that they found the prepared formal messages that they would have to pass.

Oh, it wasn't all that sneaky. For three months Craig had been giving special message-handling presentations at our ARES meetings, so I'm sure everyone at least suspected what we were doing. By the last presentation we were quite open about what would happen during Aftershock.

Twenty people signed up, which was astounding considering the size of our group. No one bailed out after receiving a package, although a few did express reservations.

Besides the heavy publicity I believe one other thing contributed to the high number of participants. During the announcements about the exercise I repeatedly said, "Failure is an option!" I explained that this was a complicated exercise designed to press everyone's skills to their limits. Some failures were actually built into the exercise and we anticipated other, unforeseen failures as well. Far from expecting everything to running like clockwork, we wanted everyone to experience a stressful situation and to discover where their weaknesses were. We told everyone that we knew they wouldn't do everything exactly right but that it was perfectly okay. Craig and I chuckled at the surprises that were in store for the participants.

Little did we realize that we would be the ones most surprised.

To be continued . . .

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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