The Amateur Amateur: Not-Quite-In-the-Field Station
By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
I just knew
that I wanted a "field" station -- a portable station for
emergencies -- but daydreaming wasn't getting the job done.
September 26, 2006
The infamous "problems and missing stuff" sheet.
A field station or driveway station?
The point of the exercise: To get some metal in the air.
I've always thought "field" stations -- a portable station for
emergencies -- are really cool. My wife Nancy and I visited a
demonstration of one not long after we first obtained our Amateur
Radio licenses. It was a simple setup staffed by the Suburban Radio
Club (now the St Louis and Suburban Radio Club), with one transceiver
running phone and another running packet. Right then I realized that
some day I'd like to have a field station of my own.
forward to today:
My desire to have my own field station
never diminished, but I also never got around to putting one
together. The fact that I still don't have one has reached a critical
and embarrassing point, since I am now an Assistant Emergency
Coordinator for the St
Louis County Amateur Radio Emergency Service
My face gets a little red when I have to admit that I can't actually
deploy in the field because I haven't yet assembled a station to take
Maybe it was
because I couldn't visualize the end product, but I just seemed to
have a mental block about putting my field station together. I've
read a lot about them. I know people who have them. If they came
pre-packaged in kit form, I'd probably have one already. But as for
putting one together from scratch, I just couldn't seem to get
One clue to my
paralysis came when someone asked, "What do you want to do
with your field station?"
I didn't have an
answer. I just knew that I wanted a field station,
could set up in, well, the field, but I didn't have any clear idea of
what it should do. When I thought about it, I'd start daydreaming
about a complex all-weather multi-function station. I'd keep mentally
adding to it until it had all the functionality of a satellite
tracking station, plus all the amenities of a small resort hotel.
Obviously, such daydreaming wasn't getting me anywhere.
At some point I
forced myself to start thinking in more realistic terms. I scaled
back my goals for the transceiver to 2 meter voice operation only, no
bells, no whistles. I thought I could probably get such a radio
pretty cheaply. But what else did I need?
Now I was back in
paralysis mode. What kind of antenna did I need? What about the mast?
How would I hold up the mast? Yikes!
What I really needed was
someone to guide me through the process.
Perhaps I wasn't the only person in our ARES group who was having
such difficulties, I reasoned, so I recommended that we form a "Field
Station Team." The team's purpose would not
be to build
field stations, but rather to assist our group's members in putting
together their own stations. Basically it would be a specialized
Since I am held
in such high regard by our ARES leadership (or, more likely, because
I had accidentally stumbled across a good idea), my suggestion was
adopted. ARES member Ed Harris, KC0UKR, was chosen to head the Field
When it comes to
field stations, Ed is at the opposite end of the spectrum from me.
Far from being confused and paralyzed, Ed has dozens of field station
ideas and practically cranks them out in his sleep. I contacted Ed
and declared myself to be his first "customer," but we had
conflicting schedules and could never exchange more than a few words
Then came the
great day, the day that changed everything.
Ed agreed to give
a presentation on field stations at one of our monthly ARES meetings.
I was anxious to hear what he had to say. Apparently so was everyone
else, since the room was packed. Ed's talk was a masterpiece and so
geared to my specific problems that I thought maybe he was operating
on the mental telepathy bands. Or perhaps my problems weren't all
Ed's talk wasn't
heavily technical. It was designed to show us that building a field
station was not that difficult a task (again, I felt as if he were
talking directly to me). He explained that all of us, being Amateur
Radio operators, already had some
of the equipment we needed,
and many of us had all
of the items we needed to put together
a field station.
It was a
startling revelation. And true. Practically everyone in the room had
a handheld transceiver and a spare mobile antenna. Those weren't the
components of an elegant
field station, but they could form
the basis of a simple
field station. Most of us could also
devise a way to recharge the handheld transceiver's battery from our
automobiles. Even better, many of us already had an old mobile rig
that we could use instead of a handheld.
My own confusion
wasn't about radios. It was about antenna masts and mounts. I'd found
a number of high-tech, military spec products, most of which cost
more than my fanciest transceiver. Ed explained, however, that
something as simple as an extendable swimming pool pole could serve
as a mast. Several other commonplace items also can be conscripted to
hold a mast, including a loudspeaker tripod.
I felt much
better after Ed's talk. I went home, took inventory of what I had and
the next day ordered the items I did not yet have. A few weeks later
I was ready to put together my first field station.
You know where
you do this, right? In your own back yard. And in my case I quickly
discovered that there was no place in my backyard where I could
safely erect a mast. Every spot was either overshadowed by trees or
was too close to power lines. So I switched to Plan B, which was to
put together my field station in my driveway.
The very first
thing that I did was to set up a TV dinner tray and something on
which to sit. I put a sheet of paper on the tray and drew two columns
on it. The first was labeled "Items that I've forgotten"
and the second was "Things that don't work". (You can tell
that I'm not an optimist.)
An hour and 32
trips to the basement for additional tools and parts later, I finally
had what appeared to be a field station. I turned on my transceiver
and made a test call. I got an immediate response. Surprise,
surprise, I had a functioning
field station! It was a joyful
Although I said I
have a functional field station, I can't go very far
field. The station worked fine on my driveway, but it was attached by
an invisible umbilical cord to my workshop and shack. The two-column
sheet of paper had expanded into many pages, and I'm still trying to
figure out how to reduce the list of tools and other support
paraphernalia to something that will fit into my compact car.
My field station
is still really a prototype at the moment, but I'm sure that someday
it will be robust and truly portable. For the time being, however, I
can only deploy to disasters in my own front yard. Ah well. I guess
I'd better get back to that two-column sheet of paper again.
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
Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail,
© 2006 American Radio Relay League