The Amateur Amateur: Ready, SET 1, SET 2...


By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor

“Who did you say you were again?” the receptionist asked. “Gary Hoffman,” I said. “I'm with the Amateur Radio Emergency Service. I’m supposed to run a test on your Amateur Radio equipment.”

I was patient, even though I knew that the SET (Simulated Emergency Test) was supposed to start right at that very moment. They had kept me at the reception desk of the Veterans Administration clinic for quite some time, unsure what to do with me. All of the people who might have known that I was coming were out of the building right then.

It was frustrating, of course, especially since I had been tapped at the last minute to run the exercise. From what I’d heard on my mobile radio on the way to the clinic, I knew that all of the other VA facilities were already manned. They were waiting for the net control operator to start the exercise.

And that was me.

But I couldn’t blame the receptionist. Here was a strange guy wearing a brightly colored ARES vest and baseball cap, claiming that he needed to get in and do something she didn’t know anything about. I might be legitimate. On the other hand, I might be some nut who thought he was Neon Man.

Eventually one of the staff figured out where the radio eqiupment was and decided that at least one the multitude of badges on my lanyard was valid, so they let me in.

Now I just had to figure out how to operate the radio with which I was unfamiliar, and, indeed, if it was even connected to anything.

A Game of Cat and Mouse

We had first been approached by the local Veterans Administration Medical Center several years ago. They were definitely interested in our services, but government wheels turn slowly. We did hold an SET with them a few years ago, but it had been in the parking lot of their facilities. It was only this year that we got an official MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) and they installed ham radios in all of their sites. This was to be the first time that we used the VA’s equipment -- and the first time we interacted with their staff. Naturally there were going to be a few hiccups.

I admit that I wasn’t completely prepared myself. I’d loaded up my car with gear, just in case the VA clinic I was assigned to didn’t have a fully installed radio, but I had paid little attention to the administrative stuff. Steve, our ARES Emergency Coordinator, was supposed to be at the clinic with me, and he’d designed the exercise and knew the names of the contact people. I figured my role would mainly be a supportive one.

Unfortunately, Steve was called in to work unexpectedly. Oops. I was suddenly in charge. And not just of that particular clinic, but of the whole exercise.

Bringing Down the House

Well, that's exactly the sort of thing that would happen during a real disaster. All you can do is square your shoulders, take a deep breath, pray that your training will get you through whatever is thrown at you.

Thankfully the VA clinic radio was fully installed, connected and working properly. At least I didn't have to start hauling in gear from my car.

I got on the air and started the SET.

As far as Simulated Emergency Tests go, this was a fairly simple one. The goals were to make sure that the new radios were installed, insure that all five VA Medical Center facilities could contact each other, pass some simulated formal traffic and let the VA staff get used to our presence. This was an Amateur Radio-only affair, not part of a larger VA exercise.

Actually, this was the first of two SETs our ARES group planned to do this year. And it was supposed to be the easy one.

I always take notes, but I was especially diligent this time. I wanted to be able to give Steve a complete report, not just about the exercise, but also on the state of the equipment, the facilities and anything else that might affect our relationship with the VA. It was difficult juggling both a microphone and my pen, and had there been another person at the clinic with me, I would have only tried to do one of those tasks. But again, just as might happen in a real emergency, we had scheduled three operators for the clinic and wound up having just one.

Strangely, I didn’t feel overwhelmed. If you practice enough, you get used to this sort of thing.

More or less.

Carmen Get It!

The radio had been set up in a room containing a fax/copy machine, and the clinic staff made frequent visits to it. The noise wasn’t too bad, but if I’d had another operator on site, I would’ve run out to my car to grab a headset. I made a note in my report about that, especially since the clinic staff wasn’t too happy with all the palaver coming over radio.

Noise issues work both ways.

What was harder to get used to was that the room lights kept automatically switching on and off. I never figured out what triggered it, but I’m sure it must have been some sort of government economy measure. Perhaps an accountant had calculated that the room was only in use during four hours of the eight hour work day, and had a device installed to randomly turn off the lights 50 percent of the time.

I made a second note for my report. For future visits, bring a headset and a lantern.

The SET continued without too many glitches, and certainly no major ones. We passed numerous messages. A few were read too fast for the receiving station to write down, but that’s all part of the learning process.

Since this was the first time the VA’s own equipment had been used, I polled the operators at the other stations and asked about the memory settings on the transceivers, whether Anderson Powerpoles had been installed, whether there was a manual for the transceiver and so forth. All this information would help Steve later.

What’s Opera, Doc?

We had been operating through a repeater during the exercise. Once we had exhausted all of the prepared messages, I had everyone switch to a simplex frequency. This was another important test: If there’s a disaster and no repeater survives, will the VA facilities still be able to talk to each other via ham radio?

As it turned out, the answer is yes. One clinic was fairly distant and almost unreachable on simplex, but fortunately the VA main hospital’s ham antenna was high enough, and direct contact was possible. Fortune had smiled on us.

After the SET concluded, I went home and started working on a mountain of other tasks that I had to do. When bedtime rolled around, I was just too tired to sleep. I sat down in front of the TV and found myself watching an opera, Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It was sung in German, but also had subtitles.

Usually I can take opera or leave it. That night I seemed to be enraptured by it, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. It eventually dawned on me that I was mentally copying down the storyline. Unlike a few of the messages passed during the SET, the opera was being sung slowly and pronounced quite clearly, and I could have copied it. I could probably have learned quite a bit of German, for that matter.

Later that night, tossing and turning and half in a dream state, I wondered just how to introduce German opera into the next ARES class on formal traffic.

Well, you never know...

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 website. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail.