The Amateur Amateur: Aftershock, Part 2

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
July 4, 2006

When we synchronized our watches at the beginning of the exercise, we gave the incorrect time and had to start over again. As it turned out the actual time and net time both became moot points.

Don and Gary

Don (standing) and I. He kept trying to tell me something important, but I was only half listening.

Don and Gary at the radio

Don (left) and I working the Shelter 5 station. Note the indispensable headphones.

Craig going it alone

Craig running net control -- and pretty much everything else -- largely by himself. [Photographs courtesy of Jim, N0OBG]

In my last column I described the events leading up to an Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) exercise called "Aftershock." Craig Hirsh, K0CMH, designed it and put it together almost single-handedly.

It was bitterly cold on the day of Aftershock, but fortunately it had not been designed to be a field exercise. Even though we were simulating the aftermath of an earthquake, and the participants were hypothetically located at shelters and such, most of them were really operating from the comfort of their homes.

The purpose of the exercise was to give the ARES members some message-handling experience. We had distributed special packages to members the previous week. Each contained instructions and sealed envelopes containing the messages they were to send. Each envelope was marked with the time to send the message. Unfortunately, that led to one of our first problems.

Craig had written all of the messages. He knew that if Aftershock started late, we'd be in deep trouble, because all of the messages had to be sent at specific times. To compensate for this possibility he devised something he called net time. Net time was a virtual time keyed to the beginning of the exercise. We planned to begin at 1 PM, but if we were delayed until 1:15, the net time at the start of the exercise would still be 1 PM.

It seemed like a clever idea at the time, but none of the participants liked it. Worse, when we synchronized our watches at the beginning of the exercise, we gave the incorrect time and had to start over again. As it turned out the actual time and net time both became moot points when the messages started to pile up.

Jim Conley, N0OBG, had graciously allowed us to use his place of business as our base of operations. There were six of us at the base. Jim, of course, had the key to the front door. Craig and I were going to oversee the operation plus occasionally take the net controller's chair. Ed Harris, KC0UKR, and Bob Wills, WB0REW, had brought radio equipment.

The Wild Card

A relatively new radio amateur, Don Mueller, KC0UJB, turned out to be one of the wild cards of the exercise -- although in the end his attendance at Aftershock was of mutual benefit. Don had heard about Aftershock and contacted me wanting to know if he could come and observe. I responded that he was welcome to come, but I would put him to work. He replied that he was dubious about operating but would be there nonetheless.

When I got to Jim's place, Don was already there. We introduced ourselves, and I started sorting though the mass of stuff I had brought, and we chatted as I unpacked boxes and bags. He kept saying that he'd just like to observe, and I kept insisting that he operate one of the stations (we had mailed him a package).

"Don't worry, you'll do fine!" I told him. After all, most of the people participating in this exercise had no message-handling experience, and we knew that they would make many flubs and mistakes. At some point, though, it dawned on me what Don had been trying to tell me all along: He had no operating experience whatsoever. And here I'd been assuring him there was no need to worry.

Oh boy! Open mouth, insert foot.

I grabbed Craig, and we had a private chat. I explained that Don had never used a repeater and may never have even keyed a microphone. We were expecting him to operate as Shelter 5 or something like that, and for the last hour I'd been assuring him over and over that he'd do just fine. It was clear that he wasn't yet ready to run a station by himself, however.

"Look, I know I'm supposed to help you manage the exercise, take a turn as net controller and so forth," I said. "But I can't tell Don to just go stand in a corner. He came because I invited him, and I've told him a dozen times that I expect him to participate. I'm going to have to stay with him and help him through the whole thing."

Craig agreed with me, but I still felt like I was jumping into the last lifeboat and leaving him alone on the deck of the Titanic.

Barely Controlled Mayhem

Things only got worse for poor Craig. With only 30 minutes until the exercise was supposed to start, lunch arrived, and he never got a chance to brief anyone. Although there were plenty of people at the base, all of those scheduled as net controllers got tied up handling unexpected events. By the time the exercise started, Craig was pretty much managing the whole operation by himself.

Aftershock was barely controlled mayhem. The list of messages to be passed piled up much more quickly than we could have imagined. Craig had deliberately scheduled some of the messages to occur at the same time, but our ability to clear them slowed down to a crawl, and we soon had an immense backlog.

We had arranged to use four repeaters during the exercise, so we should have been able to pass several messages simultaneously. Few people could reach all of the repeaters, however, and in the true spirit of Murphy's Law practically every message to be passed was between stations that could not hit the same repeater. The only repeater that everyone could hit reliably was, of course, the one we were using for net control.

Naturally everything bogged down. Just about every message had to go through the main repeater, plus all of the net controller's instructions. Things were getting more and more difficult to manage, and, although I was primarily focused on helping Don, I could hear the strain in Craig's voice. Heck, I could hear the strain in everyone's voice.

Baptism By Fire

Just when things were at their very worst, the very best came out in our members.

Jim came around to check on everyone and see if they needed anything.

Bob, although running a separate station, jumped in and handled net control when Craig looked totally overwhelmed.

Some unidentified person to whom I was about to pass a message told me that he could hear me fine on the input frequency and that we could jump over to simplex and free the repeater.

Despite the high stress levels, no one became rude or surly.

Several station operators were independently figuring out alternate routes for their traffic. One even managed to secure a fifth repeater.

Don, never having operated before, became a veteran at sending and receiving formal messages. Talk about baptism by fire!

Almost all of the messages got passed, and the exercise only ran about 20 minutes overtime.

Craig and I were in shock ourselves by the time the exercise ended. Oh, we had wanted it to be a stressful situation, but we hadn't expected to be the main recipients of the stress. But as they say, if everything goes as planned, then the exercise is a failure.

I guess the debriefing was the biggest surprise for me. As you can imagine, everyone had a long list of things that went wrong, suggestions about what should have been differently, and so on. The surprise, though, was that almost to a man, they said, "Let's do it again!"

And Don? He's turned into a real tiger. He wants to help design the next exercise.

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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