Sunday, May 8, 2011

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

I wonder if either of the followers of this blog wonder what happened with the Signalink unit I had ordered as mentioned in my April 2nd posting.  It arrived and I did manage to attach the self stick, non-skid feet to the bottom of the unit just before I left for NE PA to move my mother to assisted living here in Ohio.  Between the move and a number of ER visits with both mothers, little time has been available to play with the new toy.

I had acquired a MFJ TNC/MIC switch with a PK232 TNC at a hamfest which of course I never got hooked up.  I thought it would be perfect for switching between the Signalink and a mike.  Downloaded the manual and removed the cover from the switch box.  Totally different.  Manual was for Revs 8 & 9.  My switch box must have been Rev 0.  Checking continuity indicated that the switch box was jumpered for a Kenwood and I planned on using it with ICOM rigs.  I searched the web and from different sites downloaded   many copies of the manual.  All turned out to be for Revs 8 & 9.  Even checked with MFJ.

Finally bit the bullet and started to reverse engineer the unit.  After I had a schematic of my unit, the next challenge was to figure out how to configure for ICOM 8 pin round plug.  Mission accomplished, I think.  I still have to change the connector on the switch box TNC cable to an 8 pin round connector to mate with the  cable form the Signalink.  At this time, the connectors are sitting on my desk waiting for me to fire up a soldering iron.

I attempted last night to check into a SATERN net that is on the Summit County ARES repeater.  The FT-8900 that I have been using as net control for the ARES net on the repeater had changed settings for unknown reasons and I could not get in.  I made a quick switch to the backup ICOM IC- 48A and I still had problems.  After a few minutes of panic, I remembered that I had the switch box connected to that rig and sure enough, the switch was in the TNC position, not the MIC position.  Mike PTT works in either switch setting.  I did get checked into the net, some what embarrassed by my technical difficulties.

After the net I had to figure out how to get the FT-8900 out of the "Internet Connection Feature" mode that it had gotten into.  Once I read in the manual how to get into that mode, it was obvious how I got there and how to get out of it.  For future reference, the "Internet Connection Feature" mode (WIRES) is toggled on/off by pressing the 'left volume knob'.  Since selecting the right or left dual receive display for transmit is done by pressing the 'channel select knobs' which are above the volume knobs, I assume I got into the unwanted mode by pushing the wrong knob trying to select the left side which I leave on the ARES repeater.  It would be real nice if you could lock out unwanted features on radios.

Stay tuned for further updates on this saga.  Also, leave me know if you need a schematic showing configurations for ICOM and Kenwood on a MFJ 1272BX unit with a single 30 pin header and no silk screened labels on the board.

zeke, AB8OU

Thursday, May 5, 2011

AB8OU Comment on DStar for Emergency Communications

After reading the discussion on 'Dstar and Emcomms' on the eham's Emergency Communications forum, I posted the following comment. Since I had planned to post here on the same topic, why waste time writting it again.

 From my reading of the comments on this forum, it appears that many assume that DStar infrastructure is only the repeaters and link to the internet.  I consider the actual physical DStar radios in the hands of hams to be the most important part of the infrastructure.  If you don't have radio's to talk to others, there is no communications.

Looking at some crude numbers, there appears to be about 700,000 licensed hams in the US and about 22,000 repeaters.  This works out to about 32 hams per repeater, assuming every ham gets on a repeater.  From the ICOM offers, it appears that they feel that you need 10 users minimum to keep a DStar repeater on the air.  My quick and dirty count showed about 300 DStar repeaters in the US.  At 10 users per repeater that works out to about less that 0.5% of the US ham population.  With 32 users per repeater, market penetration goes up to almost 1.5% of the US ham population with approximately 10,000 DStar radios.  If the adage that "The first thing every ham does when he receives his license is to buy a two meter handheld." is true, two meter FM probably has greater than 90% market penetration.

Questions that need to be considered are;

1.  How many DStar equipped hams could you turn out in a disaster situation including consideration that only 25% of your group will be available in a disaster?

2.  How many of your government and other served agencies have DStar equipment installed as compared to VHF/UHF FM?

3.  How many DStar radios can ARRL provide under their HAMAID program to a disaster scene?

4.  How many of the walk-in or mutual aid hams will have DStar radios with them?

5.  How many owners of DStar radios will be willing to leave their expensive radios behind when their shift ends?

Having gotten in to ham radio when the AM/SSB war had reached the point where the technical superiority of SSB was being accepted, it still took almost 10 years and the availability of much less expensive SSB gear before SSB dominated the HF bands.  Even so, most HF rigs today still include the ancient modulation mode.

In the ARES group that I am a member of, I am not aware of any members that have DStar capability.  One or two may have DStar capable radios but have not seen any reason to spend the extra dollars to add the DStar board.

Until DStar has significant penetration in the ham population, basing an emergency communications plan on it would appear foolhardy at best.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Moron is Me, Moron is You

Dennis's grand tour of New England colleges seems to have inspired the creative writing juices.

I have been reading the book "The Unthinkable, Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - And Why", by Amanda Ripley.   It's a good read and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in increasing their understanding of how people react during a disaster.   There is a lot of great information here, and many instructive examples, but I will try to give a very quick summary - just enough to whet your appetite.

There are 3 stages in peoples reaction to a disaster - Denial, Deliberation, and the Decisive Moment.  Good examples of all 3 stages are given along with some keen insight into how these responses have evolved as protective mechanisms.  Not everyone makes it through the entire process.  Some get stuck in various stages and never form an effective response to the event.  Others might quickly progress through the stages and then formulate and execute an irrational and ineffective plan.  Understanding the process can help us to increase our effectiveness.
Denial is the initial and natural response to a disaster.  Some people get stuck in this stage and fail to progress beyond it.  This may be manifested as unrational delay in reacting to the situation, such as calling many friends or loved ones to "size up" the situation and never actually taking action.  Alternately it may be an unjustified confidence that the event is not as severe as thought, such as trying to ride out a hurricane on a barrier island.  These strategies can have fatal consequences.

After Denial comes, hopefully, Deliberation, but only to the extent that you can control your Fear.   Once you recognize the reality of the situation, it is very possible to be paralyzed by fear and the story might end right there.  In fact, it is common for people to be "paralyzed" in a crisis and thus fail to react.  Fear stimulates what Carl Sagan called the "Reptilian brain" and de-emphasizes the rational brain.   This is what makes us all Morons in a disaster and inspired the title of this article.  Physical and emotional memory and instincts turn out to be much more important here than intellectual knowledge.  An excellent example is the behavior that people exhibited in the Twin Towers on 9/11.   Some groups who had complete intellectual knowledge of how to escape down the fire exits, but who had only drilled by walking to the stairway doors did not in fact evacuate and did not survive the event.  They did not have sufficient physical or emotional memory to overcome the paralyzing effect of their Reptilian brain.  The Morgan Stanley group in Tower 1 had conducted numerous drills which included actually walking down the stairs and exiting the building.  These physical experiences, as well as a capable leader, enabled these people to evacuate and many lives were saved that day.
This really hit home to me.  Our family fire drills consist of us talking about feeling the door for heat, and crawling out through the smoke, and exiting through the windows as Plan B.   This book has shown me that this "rational discussion" of what to do in an emergency is not effective.   My entire family needs to actually perform these actions repeatedly if we are to rely upon them in a real emergency.  I also can apply this to many aspects of ARES.  We must practice the actual things that we need to do in an emergency.   Handling out a sheet of Message Handling instructions will never take the place of practicing sending messages, for example.  I intend to incorporate more practicing into the ARES process, so that we can perform when needed.

A common misconception about a crisis is that many people become hysterical and "lose it".   This is actually much less common in real life than in the movies.   Many people do become paralyzed or immobile, but they usually are docile and polite and are readily susceptible to groupthink or the influence of a dynamic leader.   Thus, if we can have just a few people in a crisis who can process the event and formulate a rational plan,  it is likely that the vast majority of people will politely follow directions and possibly be saved.   On the other hand, a few hysterical individuals can also trigger behavior such as a stampede with the resulting possibility of trampling people to death in a panic.

The main point of the book is especially germane to Hams.   This is the fact that the rational brain shuts down in a true emergency.   Hams tend to be smarter than your average bear and they rely upon knowing things and upon their rational abilities.  When our natural instincts take over during an emergency, that knowledge is not as useful as we would like to think.  Again, the best way to get the brain to perform under extreme stress is to repeatedly rehearse the desired behavior.  This is boring and hams sometimes feel like they don't need to do this because they already "know" what to do.  The key is that knowing it is not enough.  Thus, our natural tendencies tend to leave us less than optimally prepared when a crisis occurs.

I recommend everyone read this book and think about "What can I practice", so that I can be a survivor instead of a victim.

Dennis, AI8P

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Silence of the Cell Phones

Dennis, AI8P, is our first guest blogger.  His topic is very true, I can remember at the Stow 4th July parade when the cell service was so overloaded that parade workers lost their cell communications and were dependent on the hams for their communications.
I read an interesting account of a family that was on vacation in Hawaii when the Japan earthquake hit.  The gist of the article was the father lamenting how he was always prepared for an emergency at home, but he was totally unprepared on vacation.  When the tsunami warning was issued all the beachfront hotels were evacuated to higher ground.  He was glad to have his own rental vehicle so that he did not have to rely upon the hotel to evacuate them, but many other things did not go very well and he wished he had brought a few supplies with him on vacation.  

I found it particularly fascinating that he really wished he had brought some radios with him because THE CELL PHONES DIDN'T WORK!

You may recall that there was NO damage in Hawaii from the tsunami.  So here is a situation with ZERO DAMAGE and the CELL PHONES STOPPED WORKING.  All that is really required is for a widespread panic and the phones will be jammed and completely useless.  Those who claim that the communications infrastructure is more rugged than ever are correct.  Those who claim that communications capability can be restored more quickly after a disaster than ever before are correct.  But this incident demonstrates clearly how susceptible even an intact system is to overload.  Radio communications are not now and will not at any time in the foreseeable future be obsolete in an emergency.  

The bottom line is we still need to be trained and practiced and ready to help when help is needed.

I also encourage you to widen the horizons of your radio world.  FRS radios and yes, CB radios, are used by lots of people who might have valuable information, or might need information from us.  The ability to scan and communicate on those frequencies can be an advantage in these circumstances.  
Dennis, AI8P

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Cricut® Electronic Paper Cutter vs Signalink

One of the problems I discovered using fldigi and digital modes with acoustic coupling is that my wife did not care to hear all that 'noise' coming out of the shack.  One new Cricut® machine later and I have a Signalink soundcard interface on order.    Should give me better performance without all that 'noise' and the wife can now cut 12" wide paper in addition to the current 6"..

To get fldigi set up, I used two computers with their sound cards talking to each other.  For some off the air digital mode experience, Summit County ( Mondays at 7:30 PM on 444.550) and Portage County (Thursdays at 7:30 PM on 146.895) ARES® are trying to have a digital mode segment as part of their weekly nets.  Also, Portage County Amateur Radio Service (PCARS) has been running digital nets the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays from 7;30-9:30 PM on 146.895.

Of possible interest, last week the Portage County ARES was trying EasyPAL as well as fldigi.  EasyPAL allows transferring images.  Claim was that it could send a pdf of a document around twice as fast as text with fldigi.  While I was successful in sending an image between the two computers in the shack, the volume had to be much higher than with fldigi.  It did not appear that acoustical coupling would be acceptable with EasyPAL.  The noise was even bothering me in the shack.  Something to explore a little more after I get my sound card interface installed and working.

EasyPAL might deserve a spot in my EMCOM toolkit along with fldigi

zeke, AB8OU

ps.  The Cricut® machine cost quite a bit more than the Signalink.

"ARES” and “Amateur Radio Emergency Service” are registered servicemarks of the American Radio Relay League, Incorporated and are used by permission.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Narrow Band Emergency Messaging System (NBEMS) - First Steps

As those who were listening last night know, we did our initial effort on the net in trying a little NBEMS messaging using fldigi.  Two stations did some transmitting while one more was receive only.  The three of us were pleasantly surprised at how successful we were.  Everyone else just thought it was noise.  Hopefully it raised some interest in the groups members.  The plans are to provide initial training at the next meeting at the end of April.  Also, Dennis, AI8P, wants to try it as part of the towpath drill at the end of May.

For those interested, some links for information on NBEMS and where to download the open source fldigi software are:   - where to download the software - great reference material - reference material on digital modes including fldigi/NBEMS

NBEMS appeared in the August 2009 QST on page 73 and June 2010 QST on page 76.

My thanks to Matt, W8DEC, for inviting us to the training District 10 sponsored on NBEMS and fldigi and to Harry, W3YJ, for his excellent presentation on the topic.  Much of the material on the PA NBEMS web site is Harry's creation.

After years of complaining about the "digital mode de jour" approach being pushed for amateur emergency communications, I now think NBEMS has the potential to acheive sufficient addoption by the amateur community that it would be useful in an actual emergency.  While it is being pushed for emergency communications, fldigi itself provides many of the digital modes such as CW, RTTY & PSK that are in everyday ham use so it is not just an EMCOM program.

As it says on the the WPA NBEMS web site:

The NBEMS/FLDIGI software is the perfect package for digital emergency communications because it is:
- Easy to configure
- Easy to use
- Easy to modify and standardize
- Works on Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7, Linux and Mac systems
- Usable without the need for additional/complex/expensive hardware

zeke, AB8OU

Monday, March 28, 2011

Flood Plain Surfing

Well, it did not take long to trip over another item.

The Emergency Management Forum recently had a online program based on a position paper by the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM),  Critical Facilities and Flood Risk. as well as the slides..  While I did not view the presentation, the information in the paper & slides was interesting.  I learned a lot about flood plains, levies, 100 and 500 year floods, and why critical infrastructure gets located in flood prone areas.  I learned that 100 year flood zone has a 1% chance of flooding each year while 500 year flood zone has a 0.2% per year.and that levies give a false sense of security.  While most planning has been based on the 100 year level, the paper questions whether the 500 year level is adequate for the 21st century.  Very timely based what happened in Japan this month.

zeke, AB8OU