Successful Portland NET simplex exercise!

Hello radio enthusiasts, geeks, etc.! Tonight was my first exercise as a certified Portland NET (Neighborhood Emergency Team) ARO (Amature Radio Operator). We operated on simplex nets tonight throughout the city in order to practice communicating directly with each other and PBEM in the event city wide repeater networks failed during an incident.

I decided to test from my staging area tonight rather than operate from home… last time I was out I couldn’t get Pat Winlink going, and I have some new gear to test tonight: a legit collapsible table and a GoalZero LED lantern! There was supposed to be rain tonight, and the plan to cover myself and the top of the table in a tarp and work under it but alas it wasn’t necessary. The rain stayed away and I didn’t need to test my half-baked idea.

My partner and the doggo came out again and hung out with me as I operated. Most of the photos of the deployed setup and of me operating are hers taken for the blog. I should note that I don’t have her help me do any actual setup or tasks related to station operation. The idea is to make sure that I can manage all aspects of setting up, transporting, and tearing down the station without assistance.

Me sitting at a lamp-lit table with a radio on top at night, the antenna mast is in the background.
Set up at my staging area.

Setting up was pretty smooth today even in the dark. I unloaded the antenna mast and propped it up. The table was then set up and the J-pole was mounted on the non-conductive part of the mast. The second half of the 2m element was attached. After that the feedline was connected to the j-pole and the Kenwood TM-V71 was set up inside my weatherproof backpack along with the wireless access point, Winlink Pi, and 20Ah Bioenno LiFePo4 battery. With that and the ARO binder set up I powered the radio up and the resource net was just beginning.

I managed to check in just fine and the resource net controller and had an excellent signal at 5w (minimum power the radio can do). For this exercise the resource net did directed check-ins by call sign suffix. It was pretty smooth and orderly and net control did a good job. There were quite a few participants from various neighborhoods and I could hear almost every station. After all stations had checked in the subnet controller for each city region would announce their frequency and have all operators in that region move to their regional net as specified in the procedure that was sent out ahead of time. It should be mentioned that I uploaded the procedure for the exercise to the documentation server on the Raspberry Pi ahead of time as well. I was, however, missing the Multnomah County ARES frequency template. I need to make sure I have that on the document server.

Antenna mast made of a speaker stand with a wooden closet hanger deployed at the top. Open stub J-pole antenna is fixed at the top.
Antenna mast and antenna deployed

Once on the regional net we checked in using our tactical call signs. We exchanged signal reports and everyone on the net was a 5 (readability) to me which was very nice, and my signal was a 3 or above to everyone else. It looks like my staging area is pretty good in terms of connectivity to the other stations in my city region (Alameda South). Interestingly one of our operators that generally has a great signal to all stations had some trouble hearing the nearby subnet controller. I suspect there might be some multipath interference between that station and the subnet controller resulting in an unexpectedly poor signal.

Table top lit by LED lantern with a backpack containing a radio, a tablet, and zipped 3-ring binder with a partially filled form 8 and a pen on top.
Table setup with form 6 (ICS 309) in a binder, my tablet, and radio gear in a weather resistant backpack.

As we operated the radios we also filled out a form 6, or ICS 309 to track events and messages on our radios. These forms are used to document events and messages during an incident or exercise. When passing messages we fill out or voice form 8s (ICS 315), but we didn’t actually do one tonight.

Once we concluded talking on our regional nets we checked out of them using our tactical call signs, and then tuned back to the resource net and checked out there as well. It took a while to get checked out as there was a lot of doubling (more than one station transmits on the frequency at the same time interfering with other stations). It’s hard to coordinate stations by call sign suffix arriving on the resource net at random times even though the resource net controller was doing a great job.

Everything was good so far! Now it was time to attempt to send e-mail again after my last failed attempt. This time I managed to use the Winlink host and an Android tablet to send an e-mail to both OH8STN and a friend from my staging area over VHF. I had a lot of trouble sending e-mail at first. While the wifi network and applications worked just fine this time I had some challenges sending e-mail due to odd issues with the content. It seems that if the body of he e-mail or subject is too long there are protocol errors. After a few experiments I was able to finally get the messages out.

Time to break down and get some dinner! Breaking everything down was super-smooth this time around. There were no issues and everything packed away nicely! I just rolled the wagon back home and unloaded it!

Folding wagon with cloth sides loaded with equipment lit by street light. The collapsed antenna mast is  sticking from the back of the wagon.
The ham hauler loaded up on the way back home.

Lessons learned:

  • A table makes life a LOT easier when doing this sort of deployment.
  • The Goal Zero LED lantern wokred very well. The adjustable light level is very nice, and even with half the lantern on at the lowest possible power was more than enough for the vast majority of tasks I had to perform from setup to operating and filling forms to breaking down. I did increase the light level a couple times for specific tasks, but I didn’t need to keep the light level up.
  • Make sure you have all the documents you’ll need with you including frequency lists.
  • Having exercise-specific and general guides at your fingertips is a good idea. It helped in this exercise.
  • It takes 45 minutes from loading equipment to being on air for my staging area under more-or-less ideal conditions in the dark.
  • Some changes to the J-pole made it work a lot better in the field. I’ll post an entry the modifications I made.
  • My power cabling was really messy. I could do better.
  • It didn’t rain but I need to figure out a shelter that would protect the table top from wind and rain that can fit in the bag with the table.
  • The exercise seems to have gone well broadly. The check-in process was pretty efficient.
  • The check out process was a bit chaotic but maybe we could implement a system whereby net subnet controllers check into the resource net and once that happens the resource net controller adds that subnet controller’s region to a directed checkout by region. We could cycle through regions until all stations check out.