Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Not so Common Sense Tips and Tricks for Public Service

If you follow me on Twitter (@rocknrollriter), you may have noticed that I got a little bit bent yesterday morning by a thread on eham.com. If you don't follow me on Twitter, (please do) then let me explain.

In the Emcomm thread, (a hotbed of seething, snarling, nastiness anyway) a relatively new ham asked a rather benign and open-ended question. Actually, it wasn't even really a question. He asked what tips and tricks more experienced hams had for someone just getting into emergency communications. He then subsequently got blasted for not using common sense, told to use Google, and was essentially called a moron for not framing his question correctly.

It made me angry, so I responded in kind. In hindsight, it probably wasn't the best way to deal with the situation, but it is what it is. I called out "the old guard" and said that they shouldn't bemoan the fact that no one with a newer ticket wants to come to meetings, help out at events, or activate rare DX when they are constantly barked at about the old days. I also pointed out that newbies rarely have the frame of reference to ask the "right" questions; whatever that means. Further more, the reason common sense isn't so common anymore is because hams weren't willing to give advice and make it common. Most of all, I told them that it was childish to treat people this way. 

My post was heated, and that wasn't good. Luckily K7RBW was kind enough to offer a constructive response that helped save the discussion from heading down the toilet. I also received a response from K1CJS that was well considered. There is a lot of information, both good and bad, floating around about any given facet of Amateur Radio. One has to narrow it down, or the answers are muddy at best. With that in mind and in the spirit of goodwill, here are the top ten lessons I've learned while using Amateur Radio in Public Service:

1.) Always have three ways (or more) to get power

Batteries run out, AA cells disappear quickly, the power grid is always spotty in an emergency, generators run out of gas. If you don't have redundant ways to secure power, your operation will suffer. Personally, I carry 5 ways to power an HT and 3 to power my mobile rig.

For the HT: I carry a fully charged battery in the unit and another in my go-bag, an AA cell holder, a cigarette lighter adapter, a wall-wart charger, and a fully charged 7.5aHr SLA battery with a 10 watt foldable solar panel.

For the mobile rig: 12v Power supply, a large 50aHr gel-cell marine battery, and two long extension cords, one for a 120v outlet and one with battery clips for the gel-cell or a car battery. 

2.) You NEED an LED headlamp with a spare set (or six) of batteries. 

You will need light, you will need your hands, and you may need your teeth at the same time…trust me on this one.

3.) Never go ANYWHERE on a deployment without:
  • ID
  • A copy of you Ham License
  • A copy of your ARES, RACES, or MARS ID
  • A multi-tool
  • Some duct tape (wrap it around an old Hotel card key)
  • A pencil (pens always fail on deployment, a pencil can always be sharpened with that multi-tool
  • Paper you can spare
4.) A small, cheap mag-mount is your friend

Stick it on a car, motorcycle, file cabinet, or cookie sheet and you've just doubled the power of your little rubber duck. When you forget it on said car, motorcycle, file cabinet, or cookie sheet, you haven't lost $130 on a Diamond 5/8 wave base antenna.

5.) 19" will let you talk pretty far

If you forgot your mag-mount antenna, broke it; or it just drove away on a car, motorcycle, filing cabinet, or cookie sheet, 19" of still wire (even a coat hanger) soldered to the center of a panel mount PL259 connector and one to four 19" radials attached mechanically or soldered through the screw holes make a pretty darn effective antenna. Check THIS out.

6.) Get your inner MacGyver on

You would not believe what that guy could do with a paperclip. Look HERE! Likewise, you would not believe what a little can-do attitude and brain-power can do to fix an otherwise dire situation. Hams are a very resourceful bunch. Don't give us a bad name by giving up when all else fails. A small container of random connectors, fuses, paperclips, zip ties, velcro, blah, blah, blah is a godsend in a pinch.

7.) Find every fuse on every piece of gear that you'll bring...

...now put twenty thousand of each one in your go-bag. Okay, twenty thousand my be excessive  but bring way more than you think you'll need. I've always found that I usually blow at least three until I figure out the problem.

8.) Sometimes being in Emcomm means taking out the trash

This one goes straight to my heart. You're their to serve the public, so serve them in whatever way is needed, when it is needed, for as long as you are able. If you are looking to play with your radio in a bad situation, stay home. Most of the time emcomm is about communications, but sometimes it's about taking out the trash. If you're not willing to do both, then your thoughtful support from home would be better for everyone.

9.) Be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem

Much like the last tip, when you are in a public service capacity, help out, with a positive attitude, stay out of the way, keep your nose where it belongs, and bring the gear and knowledge you need to take care of yourself for the duration of your service. The last thing anyone needs is a volunteer who was there to help suddenly needing rescue or a diaper change. 

10.) At minimum, carry three radios

You will obviously need your HT and or Mobile rig. In addition, I always carry a FRS/GMRS (make sure you are licensed for one), and a digital trunk-tracking scanner. Also bring the peripherals  manuals, power supplies, extra batteries, headphones, etc.. It always seems that someone in the command chain believes that FRS/GMRS and Ham Radio are one and the same. They will need you to relay communications between someone with one to someone with the other. Be a part of the solution and have one of each, so you can accomodate them. A trunk-tracking scanner is also nice to have, especially if you're savvy enough to program it on the fly. You will be able to monitor what is happening, who is coming, where the trouble is, and myriad other things.

THIS IS IMPORTANT: If you are scanning, do so through headphones. I carry a single surveillance-style ear-piece. Why? Because people will be listening over your shoulder. Chances are they are in the middle of the emergency and stressed out of their minds. They will read all kinds of things into the radio traffic and it will cause them more harm than good. Also, there may be information shared over the scanner that is more personal than during normal radio operations. It is important to let the communications happen without causing secondary issues.

These are the top-ten tips and tricks that I have learned while serving the public with my amateur radio. Whether you are supporting a run, bike ride, or full-scale city evacuation, I believe that these things will help you out. I hope they do.

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