The Amateur Amateur

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The Amateur Amateur is a column about my experiences in ham radio. Since I have little technical expertise and not much knowledge of electronics, I make a lot of mistakes. I consider myself to be just an amateur amateur radio operator, but I keep pressing on and trying new things. This column details my triumphs - and foibles - and I try not to take myself too seriously. Whether you are an experienced ham or new to the hobby, I hope you find these chronicles of my efforts to be entertaining.

Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H

December 2019

The Amateur Amateur: Never-Going-to-Happen Deployment Kit

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H

Gary in ARES apparel
My ARES apparel, before the ARRL came out with an official version

I wanted to get involved with emergency communications almost from the moment I got my first Amateur Radio license. It was sort of inevitable, as the license class I attended was held in the St. Louis County Emergency Operations Center and taught by an employee of the County Office of Emergency Management. And indeed, within a short period of time I had two impressive certificates issued by the County. One stated that I was part of the County's Skywarn program and the other indicating that I was a County RACES operator (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service).

Sadly, those certificates didn't mean much. The organizations existed only on paper, with no structure other than a small group of operators who took weather reports during storms. I was disappointed, as it seemed unlikely that this particular RACES group was every going to do anything. In the unlikely event that it was ever activated, there was no call-out mechanism, no command structure, and worst of all, absolutely no training.

And that's all we had in St. Louis County for a long time.

It was years before a viable ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) team was organized in the County, a several more years before it was taken seriously,

Going back to those first years, there were very few of us on the team, and even fewer who had actual emcomm experience. What we mostly had was hope, and an eagerness to learn. Regrettably, the one person on the team who'd had some experience was primarily focused on being an Important Person, and wasn't a very good teacher. It was quite fortunate that the ARRL had just come out with its Amateur Radio Emergency Communication Course, Levels I, II, and III (EC-001, EC-002, and EC-003 respectively). So, at least we had some guidance. (EC-001, now vastly improved, is still available as the Introduction to Emergency Communication course).

I have waxed eloquent about the progress of our ARES team in past columns (in particular, see Three (or Four) Words About ARES), and I don't propose to repeat it all here. What I want to talk about this time is my early efforts to prepare myself, primarily by accumulating stuff.

Well, right off the bat, if you're an emergency communicator, you have emergency communicator apparel, right? I went through the catalogs, both printed and online, and found a nice blue ARES baseball cap and a blue ARES jacket. Wow, now I at least looked the part.

Looking quasi-official wasn't enough, of course. The EC-001 course and other sources told me what kind of gear I would also need.

Power Bag
My "power bag".. too heavy to move

Oh my. It was a lot of stuff. At the low end, it seemed like I would need to outfit myself with a ton of camping gear. At the high end I would have to become a survivalist. Could I really handle all this? My hobby was Amateur Radio, not becoming Davy Crockett. Would I even have time to man a radio if I was busy skinning a bear?

I never fully resolved that dilemma, but I did get a start on collecting some outdoorsy stuff. I got perhaps half of the basic paraphernalia recommended to put into a go bag. My wife contributed a combination carabiner, mini-compass, and tiny flashlight. (For years I thought it was a combination carabiner and tire gauge. With powers of observation like that, I clearly don't belong in the wilderness.) I remembered to put in a whistle, a candle, and waterproof matches. That should give me a few minutes of light, after which I could whistle in the dark.

I put together a personal hygiene kit, consisting of things like those tiny tubes of toothpaste that your dentist always gives you, and a bar of soap. If I'm lucky, the soap has since disintegrated into a pile of glop. If I'm unlucky, it has devolved into nitroglycerin.

I had Wet Wipes, a hand-crank radio, and numerous different types of flashlights, mostly from Eddie Bauer (more gifts from my wife). In fact, just about any “handy” tool sold by Eddie Bauer or Sharper Image can still be found somewhere in one of my bags.

I guess my most ambitious never-going-to-happen deployment items would be two inflatable mattresses, complete with air pump. I still have them somewhere in my basement, covered with years of dust.

I never got around to packing water or food, unless you count a few packages of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) of dubious origin. Even when they were first given to me, I seriously doubted that I would ever try consuming them. So I guess I would starve out in the field, unless toothpaste has some nutritional value.

I suppose that if I were to camp out in my backyard all this stuff would suffice, as long as I could go inside periodically to use the bathroom or raid the refrigerator.

Okay, if there is a call-out and the destination is the field, like a really field-type field, I should be honest and confess that I'm not able to respond. Sigh.

Which is not to say that I couldn't respond to any call-out. I've operated from hospitals, fire stations, a health department, and various park shelters. I do have some useful gear and have used much of it.

Radio case, lights, tool bag
The ammo box containing my field radio, my tool bag, and some lights that will never be used in the field

Probably the most aggravating field item I've used is my pop-up canopy. I've set it up in a couple of parking lots, and in weather where I really needed shelter. It's just that the beast has a mind of its own, and usually takes two to four people to get it up or take it down in a reasonable amount of time. Getting it all stuffed back into its carrying case is pretty much problematic. The canopy can, however, double as a wind sail, as long as you don't care where it takes you.

One of the more puzzling things in my deployment collection is my accumulation of antenna masts. I have far more than I need. I vaguely remember buying all that the local Radio Shack stores had (their computer inventory never agreed with what they actually had in stock) and then buying even more from other hams. I don't know why. I eventually gave a number of them to my friend Ron, KD0SML, but I still have enough to support two or three antennas out in the field. I only have one field antenna, though, and no other hardware to hold up more masts. Why I went on a mast-buying binge still remains a mystery to me.

I have several more deployment bags with items that have proved useful. I occasionally move the contents around, and, of course, have certain favorite items (just like Dr. Who always keeps his sonic screwdriver handy). My most ambitious bag is what I called the “power bag”, as I intended to keep all power-related items in it. It has RIGrunners, a DC to AC inverter, all manner of fuses, Powerpoles and a crimping tool, power adapters, meters, zip-cord, and of course, duct tape. Somehow it kept accumulating more and more “just in case” items, and I can no longer lift it off the shelf. Honestly. If I want to take it on a deployment, I would first have to go through it and remove items I'm not likely to need.

I have an ammo box for my field radio, of course, and a few more bags. The most used bag contains my tools. Don't ask me why I chose a tool bag instead of a tool box, bags just happen to be what were running through my mind at the time. This particular bag has been with me on every field exercise and every trip up onto my roof. We've had many adventures together.

I do have other never-going-to-happen deployment items, such assorted lights and such. There are even a few bag that I haven't looked at in years and whose contents I can't even imagine. I suppose that I could open them up and see what's in them. It could be something cool, something I always wanted and forgot that I already had.

On the other hand, it could be more MREs, simmering in a stew of soap-turning-into-nitro.

I think I'll pass.

(Email = [email protected])

Glitches in the System
A series of cartoons about what really happens when your radio breaks down

Earlier columns and other stories

Non-ham-related stories

Also vist
Stan Horzepa's "Surfin'"
Eric Guth's "QSO Today'"

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