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Observations on the 2013 Georgia ARES Simulated Emergency Test

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Yesterday was the first time in several years that I was able to participate in the Georgia Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) Simulated Emergency Test (SET).  I get very few weekends off and work midnight shifts so I’ve usually been asleep during the SETs.  This weekend happened to be a weekend off and I spent a couple of hours participating in the 2013 SET as part of my Saturday morning.  I monitored and checked into two nets and copied the 10:00 AM SET message from the DSTAR net, passing it on to the Emergency Coordinator for Chatham County.

In past years when I participated, I usually monitored and checked in to the local 2 meter net here in Savannah on 146.970- and the State level HF net on 3.975 LSB.  This year, however, was the first year that Savannah has had a DSTAR (Digital Smart Technologies for Amateur Radio) repeater.  DSTAR allows linking between 2 meter, 70 cm, and 1.2 GHz repeaters, so I opted to participate in the Chatham County net on 146.970 and the Statewide DSTAR net on Reflector 30B via the 440.5875+ repeater in Savannah.  While I think HF will remain to be the best way to get radio traffic out of an area hit by something like a tornado or hurricane (which could damage towers, repeater sites, and the networks that the internet depends upon), I think that the DSTAR net could be very useful during other types of emergency response and for moving radio traffic around outside of an area hit by a tornado or hurricane.

If you follow me on twitter, you may have seen some of these yesterday – here are some of my observations on the 2013 SET:

Positive Observations:

  • I like the “Quick Key” check-in method used on the DSTAR net.  When you key up a DSTAR radio, your callsign (which you have programmed in to the radio) is part of the digital transmission and is shown on the display of the radios that are receiving you.  Taking this into account, the check-in method on the DSTAR net was to simply key your radio so that the Net Control Operator would see you instead of actually calling out your callsign.  The Net Control Operator would then call the operators whose callsigns he saw come up on his display.  It actually made for a very orderly and controlled net.
  • The voice quality on DSTAR isn’t that bad.  It isn’t quite as good as the voice quality on the P25 radios we use at work, but considering the price differential between the equipment you wouldn’t expect it to be.  The only problem is that the mode hasn’t taken off with manufacturers other than Icom, so the gear is still more expensive than many hams want to spend on it.
  • I like the ICS-213 form for message handling.  The SET messages being passed over the DSTAR Net were in ICS-213 format rather than ARRL Radiogram format.  I accept the argument that the radiogram could be better for the HF side of things where you want to keep track of the relays, but in my opinion the ICS-213 is perfect for VHF/UHF nets where traffic can often be point to point with a minimum of relays.  Its simpler format makes it quicker to use and easier to use by operators with minimal training.

Constructive Criticism:

  • Regardless of whether it is an HF net, a DSTAR net, or a local FM repeater net, if you are checking into a voice net always give your callsign to the Net Control Operator phonetically, slowly, and clearly when you check in or the first time you speak to another operator.  Not everyone is always going to know who your are or be familiar with you and station identification is important not just for FCC rules but accountability as well.
  • The number 0 (zero) and the letter O (oh) are not interchangeable.  For example:  0700 is not Oh Seven Hundred, it is Zero Seven Hundred.  The two are commonly used interchangeably but misuse of them can change the content and meaning of a message, especially if you find yourself passing traffic containing alphanumeric groups (i.e. a license plate number or a serial number).

You’ll note that the two constructive criticisms above boil down to basic operating practices and protocols.  While mandating ICS courses and ARRL Emergency Services training is good, ingraining basic operating practices and procedures is even better and exercises like the SET and weekly nets are good places to do that.  Most hams are naturally conversational (some would go so far as to say verbose!) and that isn’t always a good thing; in an emergency situation brevity and clarity are key.

Yesterday morning was the first time I’ve played with the DSTAR radio (IC-91AD) for an extended period of time.  Previously, I was never in handheld range of a DSTAR repeater so I never had the chance.  While I’m not sold on it as a primary form of net communication, I do see its uses and may consider a DSTAR mobile as my 2014 radio purchase.  We’ll just have to see what happens.


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