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Public service - our public face

April Blog

Working Public Service

A friend of mine advertised his blog on Twitter recently outlining the differences between serving as a ham radio operator at an event like the Shamrock Shuffle and the Chicago Marathon. Essentially, he said that to prepare for the marathon took time and to work the event took skill.  Brian McDaniel should know, he has been working both of those events with us for several years now and has demonstrated his skill admirably. 

Well, you say, what is the big deal?  It is just a public service event! How hard can that be?  Well, allow me to provide some insight into the work that goes on behind the scenes to prepare for a single 4 hour event. Even before we begin working the Shamrock Shuffle, I personally have gone through at least six Public Service Courses to prepare to be a communicator for events like these. The courses were both ARRL and FEMA sponsored courses that teach you how to work in a multi-disciplinary environment. The Shamrock and the Chicago Marathon blend their own professional management teams with thousands of volunteers, Police, Fire, City Services and Chicago’s Office of Event Management.   In January, we had our first meeting with the medical team to which the ham radio group is a part. This is a group of 20 leaders who gather to discuss strategy for the upcoming event.  We did some talking about what performed well at the last event and how we would prepare for the next.   Most of our meetings since that one have been on-line, but we have been focused largely on organizational issues.  For the hams, it was finding and developing a team.  The Shamrock is a much smaller event and does not need the man power of the Marathon (where we can use up to 145 ham radio operators).  For both, our jobs are the same: we provide communication support for the volunteer medical teams…at each of the aid stations and those who roam around Grant Park.  Doctors want to treat patients…not communicate over radios, so that is where we come in. We are the link between the field teams and the Command staff, including the ambulance company hired for the event.

About 45 days out, the radio team is invited to sign up and assignments are made.  Next, we begin to lay out the plans for our work…band plans, assignments, roles and duties.  We confirm our work with the event organizers and discuss back-up strategies and contingency plans.  About 10 days out, the teams are locked in place, credentials are established and we begin in earnest the real work of preparing for the event. For me personally, I am about the last person to deal with my own personal gear, since I am pretty busy helping all of the other teams get ready. For some, it means buying gear for the assignment. For me, it is assembling what we need for the project. Since no public service project is ever the same, every event requires careful planning and assembling of the equipment. Even though, we have done this event for about 10 years, it is a new experience every time. So today, for instance, I pulled out all of the radios and double checked the frequencies against the band plan.  Murphy always shows up. My tried and true Kenwood TH-F6 has been programmed many, many times using an ancient Toshiba laptop with an older XP operating system.  It was old reliable.  I could fire up the computer and re-image my radio in minutes.  Well, not this time.  Something went wrong and I spent about 4 hours trying every trick in the book.  It is a long story, but there is not a simple answer. Finally, Mark Klocksin, WA9IVC came over with his computer and we could verify that the frequencies were right…and didn’t need to be re-programmed, but still, I am left with a radio I cannot program if I need to make changes.  Tomorrow I will write up the equipment inventory, collect computers, antennas and transport cases. For me, this is a mini- Field Day exercise.

Set up begins this week. Friday we install some local repeaters.  Saturday we set up 3 radios for net control at the event’s command facility downtown.  By 2 p.m. on Saturday, we will be ready to roll.  At 5 a.m. Sunday morning of the race, I need to be in my post, in the temporary tent they have built for Forward command.  About 60 -70 other people work in this facility to help manage the event. At 6:30 a.m. our other teams set up their stations and get their final instructions.  It is usually a very busy time making sure medical teams are ready, supplies are in place  and everything is  setup  and in place for the race.  At 8:30, the event begins and our work begins in earnest.

By noon, we are done.  Tear down takes about an hour and I am generally home by 3:30…ready to unpack and clean up from the event.  That usually takes another day.

So, my point?  Doing public service work is a discipline.  It is great fun…but no matter where you stand on the plan…as Aid Station team or a rover with an imbedded medical team or at Forward Command, everyone has to make sure they have prepared properly for their job.  It takes some effort.

For me, I would conservatively estimate that I have put in about 40 hours of preparation…many other would have done much less…and some have done none.  We know who those folks are because of the complaints we hear about people who have not read the briefs or don’t know their assignments or don’t have their equipment readied.  Some don’t even know how to use their own radios. It is at events like this that you learn the discipline involved.  It is great fun to work with a large team and it is reward when everything goes right.

So, this note is a nod of appreciation to the many ham radio operators who have devoted some portion of their ham radio time to give back to their communities. Public Service is our public face. That is about all the world sees of ham radio.  For that reason alone, it is important stuff.


Rob, K9RST