I wrote this a while back for a proposed NTS (National Traffic System) newletter, which may or may not come to fruition ...
A little over a year and a half ago, the previous LAX STM (Bill K6IFF) recommended me to the Section Manager as his successor & quit, to concentrate on learning the more esoteric Area & TCC level skills.
At that point I had been licensed for only about 15 months. I had my General, was on HF & was completely self-taught & self-motivated on CW. Early on, after passing my Tech exam, I’d read the ARRL Operators Manual cover-to-cover, to see what I might want to do with my new license. For some reason, the chapter that attracted my interest was the one on Traffic Handling. I wasn’t quite sure how to get involved, however.
I joined SKCC & FISTS to get some support on my CW learning curve. One day not long after that, I answered the phone to hear some guy say he had a radiogram for me! In retrospect, it was ARL SIXTY NINE FISTS. Perhaps to make conversation, the delivering ham asked me what FISTS was. When I told him it was a CW club, he invited me to the Southern California slow net, SCN. I did listen to it, but it was too fast & I could not follow it. Also, I had no 80 m antenna yet. So I just continued my daily code practice, my ragged ragchews & SKCC sprint contests.
During one of the latter events, I made a contact with Dave KI6BHB. Upon looking him up on www.QRZ.com, I learned that he was involved in a trivia contest (http://ntstalk.wikidot.com/activity:trivia-traffic) where questions & answers were sent via radiograms. He was patient enough to start skeds with me at 7-8 WPM, taking & delivering my trivia traffic. One day, he sort of set me up: he gave me a question that he had authored, meaning that I could not give the answer directly to him, if it was to go through the NTS. So one evening, in the dead of winter when 80 m was long, I went to the club station on the campus where I work & checked into the Northern California Net NCN (I could not hear SCN). When acknowledged, I announced DE K6HTN FIRST TFC NET PSE QRS QTC SCN 1. I sent Dave his trivia answer.
I then went to an ARES meeting & inquired about traffic training.
Six months later, I was the STM.
A couple of years before that point, the NTS in southern California had nearly died, as rumor would have it, from a spam overdose. Most of the active members had become dissatisfied with the quality of the traffic & quit. K6IFF, KI6BHB & Bruce KI6RUW (now W6WW) - the latter two in ORG Section, were in the process of trying to revive the NTS presence. They had re-instituted the SCN/CW net twice a week & organized SCN/V three nights a week on a repeater at 8,000 ft elevation, with an awesome footprint.
A few months before my appointment, the SM, David N6HD, had started the Los Angeles Net (LAN) on a linked repeater system, two nights per week. K6IFF & KI6BHB served as RN6 liaisons. Often we got no traffic; sometimes we got no check-ins. Usually, it was three or four messages, most often trivia or “friendly reminders.
My first task was to figure out where to get more traffic handlers & more traffic.
I did not think shuffling traffic in itself was going to appeal to our Section hams, with their smart phones & iPads. But I did think that the skills to handle traffic would be of great value for the ARES operators, even if the emergency messages they passed were not actually radiograms. So I expanded a bit on class material that N6HD & N6VI, the SW Division Vice Director had been using. I gave it a catchy name (“TFC School”) & arranged for ARES to sponsor it in each of our five Districts. TFC School is a lively 3-hr class, that involves writing radiograms,“passing them” to classmates & mock net activity. I am now starting the second round through the Districts.
Only about 5% of the students become active traffic handlers. But that is enough for growth. We have about 10 regulars on LAN & 5 on SCN/CW. We are a chummy group & we enjoy taking over the back row at ARES meetings. I’ve had a few proud moments watching a couple of guys whom I trained, shuffling out of a local radio club meeting to the parking lot & coming back later with a stack of paper.
We now have a Morse code class. I’ve tried to promote interest in WinLink, packet & now Fldigi. This is starting to pay off, with ARES packet nodes popping up where there were none before.
Obtaining quality traffic was a little bit harder, at first. We had the local trivia & otherwise it was mostly bulk traffic. On Field Day, I sent out quick & easy instructions through the Section email database, for earning up to 200 bonus points. Some of the earthquake drills & public preparedness events have had traffic handlers attending, ready to “send a sample message to your out-of-town contact.”
I have often said to our handlers, “If you don’t like the traffic, send some of your own. Send it HXCE.”
At the SW Division Convention, we staffed a table, collecting radiograms & sending them on the spot through a portable packet WinLink node on the 17th floor of the hotel. We organized a panel discussion including some TCC ops, all the way up to the Chair of the Pacific Area Staff. Not expecting a huge interest, we reserved a small room; we packed it.
Our first big break came when W6WW decided to go into the bulk traffic business, with traffic specifically aimed at new licensees. These are the most fun messages to deliver (especially when they are going to young people) & the project gave our members a good dose of enthusiasm. Out of his fire hose of output, Bruce gives me a few per day for “code practice,” making me an active & more proficient member of RN6. W6WW has since moved on to other projects & a “gang of four” LAX handlers have taken over the welcoming task. (Did you know that you can use Word/Excel/Mailmerge to create NTSD batch files?)
Our second big break was the formation & growth of email@example.com. Just the presence of a database of hams interested in conversing by radiogram has been extremely stimulating. The phenomenal growth of the reflector as a resource to ask questions of the top people is even more appreciated.
The third break was making arrangements to exchange traffic with the Sixth Region NTSD MBO, Jim K6RXX. Due to software issues & skip problems (we are a geographically small Section), this has so far been by Airmail & WinLink, so there is much more work to do. But it has provided an influx of traffic for our local nets.
At least some percentage of interesting traffic seems to be the key to getting & keeping the interest of the local handlers. A reasonably large volume of traffic is also necessary to challenge skills & maintain interest. It is one thing to know how to format a radiogram & send it. For true emergency preparedness, it is also necessary to deal with net issues under mild pressure. The NTS is the only branch of ham radio that I know of that practices for disaster 365.25 days per year, so let’s do enough of it to stay awake.
LAN sessions are now lasting an average of 45 min & handling 20 to 30 messages. Our record is 58, on a net that lasted rather longer than 45 min. We have rotating liaisons (in other words, it’s not me all the time) to RN6 & SCN/V. We have half a dozen net control ops, who get better at it every time they do it. We are learning to use “QSY” to simplex or WinLink, to make things more efficient. We are learning to work around propagation problems on HF & linkage problems on the repeaters. We all work together to gently remind each other about writing good service messages, correctly voicing traffic & not speaking before the repeaters have time to link up.
Most of the steps in the re-growth of LAX NTS have been baby steps. Some, though, have been leaps of faith, such as planning the Convention effort without knowing for sure whether we had a working WinLink node to send to. Or taking net control on RN6 for the first time. I’m sure we have plenty of other adventures ahead of us.
But every day, it is something. What do I have to say to someone that I can say by radiogram? Shall I organize short presentations just for our group, in our post-ARES meetings? Who has the traffic & who is the liaison? What is the health of the repeater system today?
I guess the bottom line is that if you want to expand your local NTS, you have to be very enthusiastic yourself & have a lot of energy. You need a lot of ideas, either yours or you can borrow some (with credit, of course). Thank people constantly. Be prepared to spend a lot of time on it & check into a lot of nets. Just like code practice, just keep at it. It will come.