Sunday, April 29, 2012

Care & Feeding of a Section NTS Group


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 radiograms@groups.yahoo.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.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

FLdigi

Our ARES group has recently been introduced to FLdigi (NBEMS).  This is software for passing messages in many different formats, through many different digital radio modes. We’ve tried it so far on 2 m FM (JT63 format) in its most basic operation – hold the radio mic up to the computer speaker!

Surprisingly to me, this work, even in the presence of noise around the room.

Another nice feature is an accompanying program FLmsg, which has forms for easy entry of several formats: radiograms, Red Cross, ICS 213, etc.  These help ops who may not be totally comfortable with the form to avoid messing things up.  The message is transferred as plain text & FLmsg can pick it up & put it back into the form.

How exactly do we use this in our local NTS operations?

We actually do a lot of VHF simplex transfer of messages, both “QSY” during nets or outside of the nets.  Say K6HTN cannot make the next net, but holds traffic, K6FRG agrees to take the traffic.  If it’s one or two messages, it’s easiest to use voice.  For more than that, FLdigi is usually a better choice, once we all know how to use it & what are settings are.

Accurate?  Not 100% of the time, at least with mic & speaker.  We have to scan through for obvious problems, dropped sections & ask for fills as we do on voice.

We also found that we dropped the radiogram form pretty fast & went back to “flat file” text (“generic” tab in FLmsg).  It is easier for multiple messages & “books”.

It’s another nice “tool in the box”.

Pushing the Envelope a little

In one way, the National Traffic System has a leg up over most ham radio emergency communications (emcomm) organizations: they “practice” every day.  Not everyone practices every day, but there is someone practicing every day.  There are opportunities every day.  Messages get slung across the country every day.  Messages get delivered every day.

At the very least, it gives operators a chance to learn how to format a written message (we pick one format – the ARRL radiogram format - & use it, but the skills apply to any formal message). 

Then they get to learn how to check into a complex directed net.  A lot of weekly “emergency nets” are directed nets, but most only check stations in at the beginning & out at closing.  There may be some announcements.  But, there is nothing as complex as arranging multiple pairs of stations to pass messages off frequency, come back, go to another frequency, etc.  (I’d sure hate to have to learn to do this when the heat is on!)

They get to learn to send the messages (voice, CW or arrange for digital transfer) in the clearest & most efficient manner & to ensure that the missing parts are filled in correctly.  They also learn to be on the receiving end of this process, know when they have it right & when they need to ask for parts to be repeated.

That’s not all there is to training for disaster, though.  Another big issue is the volume of potential message traffic.  If your usual routing outlets cannot handle the volume, you have to be creative!  The right messages have to go to the right routes.

One way to stretch your capability is to try a “bulk traffic” operation.  There are a few of us who mine the FCC data base daily for new hams & send them a welcome message.  There are people who send birthday greetings to members of certain radio clubs, etc.  The first time I took on one of these operations, I managed to find routing snags in even the digital system.  Until I got my personal routine down, I had difficulty producing batch files with exactly correct format on a reliable basis – it took a couple of days to get it right.  I found that my usual outlet was a bit overloaded & I had to find alternate outlets.

Maybe aspiring emcomm operators should try this for a month or so, just “for fun”?

Another aspect of a disaster that doesn’t get simulated in drills all that well, is stress.  Here is one of the things that I do.  The monthly social gathering of one of my radio clubs conflicts with a traffic net.  However, the meeting takes place in the club shack, so I check into the net & do my usual traffic passing during the meeting.  Headphones block out enough of the noise.  I’m also using a key & rig that I don’t use all the time.  There’s a lot more RF noise, which I don’t have most of the time (why?  That’s another entry …). I hate it & I’ve threatened to skip meetings many times, but I do it.  Because who knows what worse conditions I may have one day.

On the tactical side of communications, I also love doing comm support for “events” (foot races, etc) in the pouring rain.  Or in the middle of Death Valley … “Baker to Vegas” is coming up!  It’s not NTS, but it’s still fun & one always learns something.