Is amateur radio still relevant?

This question gets asked a lot anymore. People present new technology and internet as reasons that ham radio would no longer be useful.”Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed”. People can communicate world wide, except for the countries that filter traffic. With modern phones, communications are always there, except when it doesn’t work. Modern communications technology has it’s uses, but the reality is that it requires a massive infrastructure and thousands of people to make it work. It is also designed around commercial viability. The grid is constructed to supply typical usage, but peaks caused by an unusual event can over load it. This is something I have seen happen on small earthquakes, fires, and even sporting events. Protocols are in place to try and limit human error, but it still happens. There was a day that a software update took out the entire Verizon system in Los Angeles, which resulted in trouble with all the other providers as the load shifted to their systems.

For many people, much of the time, an interruption of service is an inconvenience. In an emergency, it may mean not being able to get help. To someone with a medical condition it can be life threatening.

Emergency Net.

Years ago, there was a phone outage on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. That was not an uncommon occurrence. This time a man’s wife collapsed, she was unconscious on the floor. He was a ham though grabbed his radio and made a call. I was monitoring outside the outage area. I was able to take his information and use the phone to get paramedics dispatched. This is one of many emergency messages that I have relayed as well as being involved with fires, protests, search and rescue, crime scene containment’s, and even 9/11. Sometimes it is just the stranded motorist in a cell phone dead zone.

More recently my daughter (KJ6HRW) and I were in the forest. We came across a pickup truck at a recreation area with a child locked in. He was crying and screaming for his mommy. We looked around for anybody that might belong to that truck. Not finding anyone I used my PA (loud enough to echo of the canyon walls) but still no response from anyone. Several repeaters had nobody answer. I finally got an answer on one, but the person had no idea where the San Gabriel river was, let alone the west fork. I found out later he was in New Jersey and had answered on an internet link. He was trying to be helpful. I finally had to resort to driving to a ranger station to report the problem. Unfortunately this also is not an isolated incident and has been more prevalent in recent years that when I am out on the edge, off the grid, there is nobody able or willing to answer the call.

Most recently we have a series of storms in Southern California. There has been rain and flooding. The mountain roads are closed because of snow as low as 1200 feet. People are stranded in the mountains. There have been sink and flash floods. Because of my job ( I monitor parts of the public infrastructure and have seen Internet, power and cell phones going off and on in various areas around Southern California. So I went to the emergency frequencies to see what what might be going on, no answer. I started scanning, no activity. Posted to the Internet, nobody knows of a net going on. I switched to HF (40 meter) and found a station 140 miles away, just chatting. Now with my experiences, I start think of the person that could be sitting out there off the grid, with nobody to answer the call.

I would like to do something about this. Now there are those today who, rather aggressively say “ham radio is just a hobby”. It may be for them, but here is an excerpt from part 97.

ยง 97.1 Basis and purpose.

The rules and regulations in this part are designed to provide an amateur radio service having a fundamental purpose as expressed in the following principles:

(a) Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.

There are many people now that just assume somebody else will take care of a problem. They watch on the news, or change to the game. They drive by on the road assuming somebody else will stop. We also have a number of emergency groups which actively discourage members from doing anything. That is probably due to agency concerns over liability. I am a believer in public service (Wimachtendienk Wingolauchsik Witahemui) though. I am the one who stops and helps. However, for those that are self serving, we have been granted the use of a lot of frequency space, though we are a minority. There are people that want that spectrum. If amateur radio becomes only a plaything for a few, then what will you say to congress when they want to reallocate the space to someone who will pay more?

There are also those who say there is nothing we can do, but in my story above that is not true. We can relay message in and out of communications dead zones. Most communications systems now are based on infrastructure which can be, and is routinely damaged. It takes people with an understanding of it to bypass the gaps and improvise.

What can we do? We don’t need to wait for a phone call (they may not be working) or permission to go on the air. We are already licensed to do so. My group has a repeater with backup power, plus a backup repeater on a different mountain top. The footprint is the Los Angeles basin, down the coast towards San Diego and up towards Santa Barbara. We reach in to parts of Riverside and San Bernardino. I have training courses for those that are less experienced or unsure of what they should do (emergency training is not part of the license). What you can add:

  1. Listen. If someone needs assistance that you can provide, help out. That may be relaying a message from the radio to the phone or email.
  2. Provide information. This could road conditions, damage reports, etc.
  3. Provide contacts. Do you have the means to relay information that we collect to emergency responders or management agencies?
  4. Help expand coverage. Do you have HF, perhaps NVIS ability? Maybe a repeater on the edge of our footprint that could be linked?
  5. Want to become a ham? Soon I will be putting together a class. Maybe you are interested in radio or electronics. Maybe you are interested in Emergency prep. Maybe you just want someone to chat with on a long freeway drive.
  6. Get other people to help. The more people in a net, the more info we have and the more connection points.
  7. If an incident happens, get on the air.
  8. Bring other people to the net

If you want to help, send me a contact. We will go from there. We may be able to help you, or you may be able to help us. You can be new or experienced, HT, mobile or base station.

Special Olympics

It’s official, Southern California Special Olympics is back, and we will be needing communications volunteers. When I got started on this event, I volunteered because Henry WA6RJA was asking for help. We were out there at 5:00am (we are not that early this time) so I was drowsy. I was the new guy so I was at a position that didn’t have much activity and I was leaning against a post waiting for something to happen. Someone poked me in the back and startled me, when I spun around it was one of the athletes. She had her gold medal, an ear to ear grin and was showing it to everyone whether she knew them or not. I was hooked from that point on. This even is very important to them and I enjoy being a part of making it happen.

The dates are June 10-11. Time 8:00am to 4:00pm at Cal State Long Beach. Our trailer will be in the parking lot west of the pyramid and Miriam Way. Operating frequency will be 146.235+ 100 ctcss. In addition to being a worthwhile community service, it is also good training for emergency operations. We also have radios that can be used by non licensed people.

We need enough people to cover the venues, provide relief and adapt to situations.

Venues will be:
Track and Field
Games HQ
Honored Guest
Family tent
Net Control

Some contacts disappeared for unknown reasons, if you did not get a confirmation please contact me again. If you can help out please let us know

What a repeater looks like

Repeaters are often a mystery. Strange mythical boxes on a mountain somewhere that echo your voice over larger distances. Recently there have been a number of posts from hams wanting to use cheap HTs linked together with a VOX circuit to make a repeater. There is really more to them than that, and good reasons for the additional equipment that really shouldn’t be ignored.

There can be a lot of variations in what a repeater looks like, depending on what models are used. This photo is fairly typical.

At the top is the power supply. It is 100 percent duty cycle so that heavy use does not burn something out that would be a project to replace on a mountain top.

Next is the repeater itself. This one has cards for the receiver, transmitter and the control logic. Also common would be two good quality radios interfaced to a controller. The quality of the radios is important since repeaters are usually up where they have a view over a wide area, which also means that the receiver will get hit will signals from a wide area that they must reject. The receiver must also be able to reject the signals from adjacent repeaters which may be putting out very strong signals. The transmitter should also operate clean so as not to interfere with people in the view.

Not seen in the picture is a circulator which serves two purposes. First is to protect the transmitter from reflected power if something should go wrong with the antenna. The environment on a mountain top can be quite rough on equipment. Below is a dish that came off of Heaps Peak. Second is to keep other signals from going up the line in to the transmitter finals and causing mixes.

Down at the bottom are the cavities, 2 meter is this case. They are tuned to the transmit, or the receive frequency to keep the transmitter for interfering with the receiver allowing the repeater to operate full duplex. They also help reject other signals outside the intended operating frequency. On the left is the spectrum analyzer used to tune the cavities. To the right are the cavities for a 220 repeater.

There is also lightning protection and grounding to protect it from the inevitable strikes. The controller is responsible for the ID, optional features, and remote shutdown in case something goes wrong.

This is a basic ham repeater. There is not much that is non essential in it, so this is something to think about when someone is tempted to cut corners. Commercial systems are often more complex that this, using LTR Trunking, or Digital Trunking to provide additional features and to better utilize the frequencies.