The Amateur Amateur: A Day in the Parking Lot
"Okay, I'm here," I thought as I pulled into a parking space. I shut off the engine and just sat there for a minute. I glanced down at the clipboard lying on the passenger seat. It held my "what-to-do-and-in-what-order" list. Once I started doing things, though, there would be no stopping. So I just savored the moment, probably the last few quiet minutes I'd have for the rest of the day.
The hospital was supposed to have put down traffic cones in the parking lot to show us where we were to set up our operations. There were no cones, but I'd already visited the site earlier and knew exactly which spots had been assigned to us. I was sure many things would go wrong that day, but if they were all as trivial as the lack of traffic cones I'd be happy.
I'd met up with Steve, KC0QMU, at the staging area earlier that morning. Steve is our ARES® group's Emergency Coordinator and was the director of the exercise we were going to run that day. He had already set up his canopies, radios and the ARES promotional material at staging. His new ARES banners were fluttering in the morning breeze.
Steve had already been there for hours. He'd probably been unable to sleep the night before, much as I hadn't, with last minute details playing through his mind. He'd arrived early, gotten set up then paced around waiting for Craig, K4LSU, and me to arrive.
After I arrived, Steve gave me a box of ARES flyers to take to my remote site; I gave him some promotional buttons I'd made. Our three sites were all in hospital parking lots and it was unlikely that many visitors would stop by, but we needed to have the promotional stuff available just in case.
We chatted for a while. I broke a fingernail (which I always do). We discovered what items we'd forgotten to bring (Steve forgot his beginning-of-exercise script and I'd forgotten to bring trash bags), and we marveled at how the day had turned out to be sunny and warm despite the forecast of an 80 percent chance of thunderstorms.
I sat down and scribbled out a new script for Steve to read over the air.
About that time the other early birds began to arrive.
Oh, they weren't supposed to. This was an ARES deployment exercise, and most of what was to take place was supposed to be a surprise. We'd told our members what day the exercise would take place and when to expect an on-air announcement. But everything else was supposed to be secret. But somehow, practically everyone knew where staging was located, and a number of them -- including people who just came by to watch -- started arriving well before the on-air announcement was made. Gee whiz, I was still writing that announcement!
The original plan had been for Craig to head to the southern-most hospital and for me to head to the northern-most hospital at 11 AM, just as the exercise announcement was being made. But I left staging about 20 minutes early, arriving at the northern site right at 11 AM.
I listened to the announcement, savored my brief moment of peace in the parking lot, then grabbed my to-do list and got started.
I hadn't done a great job of packing my SUV, but at least I'd put the stuff I'd need first at the top of the pile. So far my "lessons learned" list included "put-trash-bags-on-checklist" and "learn-how-to-pack-the-SUV-so-that-the-equipment-doesn't-move-all over-the-place." Oh yes, and "always-bring-a-nail-clipper."
I pulled out my canopy, spent almost 15 minutes getting it up, then added "one-man-cannot-set-up-a-canopy-alone" to the list.
Twelve o'clock noon, and the first of exercise participants assigned to my team started to arrive.
And I still had not finished getting my station up and running. Why was it taking so long?
Well, I guess it had a lot to do with the canopy, the new banners, the promotional material and all of those other incidental things that individually were just supposed to take a minute or two. So far they'd taken up most of an hour. I did get a basic radio station going fairly quickly, but I'd planned to run some digital modes in my spare time (hah!). My laptop wasn't yet ready and my transceiver was still set to the talk-in frequency.
When John, KJ0MTN, arrived I made my first command decision of the day. I told John to set up his 2 meter transceiver and take over talk-in duty as quickly as he could. While he was doing that, our first and only visitor dropped by and picked up some literature. At least that vindicated my decision to put out the promotional material before doing anything else.
More of the team began to arrive. I was still struggling with my digital station and just told everyone to set up whatever they had. The problem was that they all had the same thing: A 2 meter transceiver. That didn't give our team very much diversity, so I worked harder on getting my digital operation up and running.
We soon had a number of 2 meter stations going, so I started making assignments. I can't remember precisely whom I told to do what, but what we ended up with was one station to receive incoming traffic, one to send traffic to South Operations, and one to send traffic to ARES Command. That would give us three 2 meter voice stations.
And still no digital station.
I'd tested my transceiver and laptop just before packing them up for the exercise and everything had worked fine. I'd tried all of the digital modes I might need to use and had no problems at all. And now, here in the field, my transceiver and laptop simply would not communicate. And yes, I tried the old reliable power-down/power-up trick. Several times. In every conceivable sequence.
About 1 PM, we started receiving on-air traffic. The exercise simulated a disaster in which certain hospitals had been damaged and were diverting their patients to the hospitals where our teams were located. Steve, W0SJS, was putting triage traffic on the air.
I quickly learned which of my team's members knew how to handle formal messages and which didn't, something I should have determined as soon as they'd arrived. Fortunately, about half of them had handled formal traffic before, so I was able to pair up those who'd had experience with those who hadn't. That part of the exercise, at least, seemed to go well.
I kept on struggling with my station. Occasionally one of the team members would come over to ask a question about formal traffic.
Somewhere along the line it occurred to me that we weren't sending any messages. Wasn't that supposed to be part of the exercise? I called for clarification, and, of course, got two different answers. But eventually I found out that there had been a last minute change in the plans and we were now only going to receive messages.
Well, that left me with one person to receive, and five to stand around and watch.
I changed the assignments so that everyone had an opportunity to operate. I also wrote down some terse comments to make at the debriefing. The exercise wasn't falling apart, by any means, but it did seem to be slightly skewed.
I returned to my forlorn digital station and gave it one last try. And to my utter amazement, it worked. I managed to get one digital message through to the exercise director...
...who told me to wrap it up, shut down the site and have everyone return to staging for the debriefing. Ah, such a short-lived success.
Tear-down was much easier than setup, as there were many eager hands to help. What had taken over an hour to put up came down in a matter of minutes.
All packed up, I sat in my SUV and watched the other team members drive away one by one. When I was finally alone, I looked around the parking lot, now peaceful again, one last time. "Savor the moment," I thought to myself, "savor the moment."
Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's name -- "The Amateur Amateur" -- suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related Web page. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail.
Gary Hoffman, KB0H