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A few words from Rob K9RST…

This is your brain on Field Day

Field Day is fresh in our minds. Thanks to every single one of you who were able to attend or participate. It was a fabulous weekend event…and hot!

Three days before Field Day, I was making my way to my storage locker to pull Field Day equipment to be staged in my garage. I was also chatting with some other members of the team who were doing the same for their own departments. All the while, I kept thinking, why are we doing this? What is the purpose of Field Day? I even sent myself a little voice memo…basically reciting the ARRL party line: Field Day is an opportunity to show our communities what ham radio can do in the event of a disaster. I guess that is rationale for fighting the heat, the bugs and the weather. Still, it does seem kind of crazy. I mean, we had a whole year to plan. How many disasters give you that much lead time? So, that definition doesn’t really hit the mark. Then I got to thinking, Field Day is really about sacrifice. People willing to go to extraordinary lengths to complete a task. That seems like a better working definition and certainly better characterizes the ham radio people I know. For some of us, there was the intensive week of prep time away from family and work. For others, it was giving up a valuable weekend to practice our radio skills. On Friday, we had about 20 people sweating in the hot June sun to set up antennas and towers. They could have easily stayed home to watch soccer or read a good book. Instead, they joined in on the brutally, tough work, on a scolding summer heat. I know, we aren’t getting younger and the tasks are becoming more physically demanding. The point seems to be that Field Day demonstrates the sacrifice we would make to help our communities. And it is not just the leadership team that makes sacrifices.

When it came to operating radios, even that can be arduous and demand sacrifice. Ask Bill Lederer what it is like to sit for 12 hours straight working CW! Or try 80 meters on a stormy summer night! Your hearing goes batty; your voice becomes raspy and tired and you lose your brain. Or imagine what your brain is like after working 20 hours to set up and then you operate for 4 intense hours on radio duty. At 6 am, suddenly, all of the calls sound like alphabet soup. It takes a large number of dedicated folks to brave the elements administer this self-inflicted stress, to make the sacrifice.

There are rewards as well. Watching the young and old working on HF for the first time and catching the fever of making contacts can be thrilling. Or the excitement of commanding the band with a commanding run until you or your logger drop. It is rewarding to introduce people to this hobby who had no idea what this thing could be; it is showing our public service officials see what we can do. It is explaining to our elected officials why Field Day even exists. And, yes, it is also for seeing old friends. It was great to see Mike Wolf, return back with family in tow or seeing Leo, sporting his 4 day beard! For me, I was really glad to see Greg Lapin. He served as my Field Day operating mentor years back (and thanks for being part of the clean-up crew).

I had the opportunity to teach 15 Cub Scouts about radio, electronics and fun. Wow, it was really a treat to see something that you spend days working on come to life.

Then there are the unsung heroes…many of you don’t know Greg Karlove…but he spent many hours behind the scenes creating tools to solve some of our more vexing problem. How do you put a two inch mast into a tower with a 1-1/2 channel? How do you make waterproof connectors for the towers? How do we hoist a 300 pound tower without killing anyone? Dave Hewitt spent weeks and lots of personal resources creating an attractive GOTA station, and he let us use two of his personal K3 rigs. He had hoped to bring in a Flex radio for display, but when Ron Settle could not make FD because of a family crisis, we had to drop that from the menu. Ron Settle, Mark Klocksin, Ron Harroff and Don Whiteman spent two solid days building the 40 meter beam…then Murphy showed up. Thanks to the quick thinking of Warren Pugh, Jordan Kaplan and others with multiple runs to the hardware store, we got that beam up in the air and working. You may not know that Ed Burckart always puts in the ground rods and has made it his duty to take them out. This is no small task, and in the heat we face it was scary tough. Don Whiteman, Mark Klocksin, Randy Brothers, Dave Hewitt, Warren Pugh spent weeks tweaking the rigs to make sure they worked properly and interfaced with the computer for logging. How about the chefs, Larry Leviton and John Wass? Did anyone thank them for the hours they stood behind a steaming hot grill, in 90 degree heat cooking burgers for us? Chuck Saunders and Hy Alexander accepted the job of leading the antenna mounting team with no real experience in doing this job. We needed some leaders and they accepted the responsibility and handle it well. Sacrifice.

Field Day is great fun, but it demands real sacrifices by many, many people to be successful. I have been chair of this event for 15 years…and I am very, very grateful to all of you for sharing the load. You have to understand, before I was President of this club, I was Scoutmaster for a Boy Scout Troop with 100 scouts. I love camping and the outdoors…and so this is my chance to continue that tradition. Plus, I always wanted to go on some DXpeditions…and Lake Forest might be the farthest I ever get!!

A couple of years back, we divided some of the Field Day the responsibilities: I took on most of the bonus point issues and physical support (the three T’s: towers, antennas, tents) and Randy Brothers managed all of the operating tents and related issues. Since then, we have developed some strong band captains and a great leadership team. Together with all of you, we have made this a true Club event. And one that I am very proud to be part of. Field Day is very much worth the sacrifices we all make for it every year.

Thank you,

Rob, K9RST


Does ham radio still really exist?

So, there I was standing in front of this kindly older lady who runs the business department for the Glenview Public Library. I was there to request a couple of dates for VE sessions for the Fall. She suddenly stopped her research on dates and asked…”This is for the ham radio group? Do people still do ham radio? What are you doing again?” Well, this opened the door for my 2 minute elevator speech about what ham radio is today. Yes, Helen, we still are around and stronger than ever in some ways. And, not only are we an educational organization, we often perform public service for events like the Chicago Marathon, or Skywarn to support the Weather service or we can provide support for larger, more serious catastrophes. Well, that seemed to appease her curiosity and got us talking about the good old days, and her father’s interest in radio. Why did all of our fathers play with radio?

Yes, ham radio exists, but we have hidden ourselves away in dark basement shacks. Even more, our antennas are in full retreat in many cases. We are not visible anymore…which is the entire point of Field Day. At least for one weekend a year, we drag our gear outside to show the world what we can do. Yes, we have made it a friendly contest but we have not done a great job of bringing the world to us. Partly that is our fault. We have chosen a site that has many amenities, but it not the most public of sites. Fact is, it is darn hard to find public spaces that would allow us to operate…some people put Field Day on in malls and parking lots. But far too many have elected to move their operations inside the public service facilities that many of the clubs have now as partners. Nothing wrong with that strategy! At least they have air conditioning! But, it doesn’t bring our story to the public. Telling the public our story through the media has become almost impossible as well, unless you have some peculiar angle that catches their attention. So, what does all of this mean? It means each one of us has an obligation to try to bring our friends and neighbors to our site. Bring them out and show them around. Show them that we have some pretty exciting technology and yes, ham radio really does still exist.

At our next meeting, we will be discussing many topics that relate to being prepared for emergencies, the likes of which Field Day is meant to simulate. Personally, I love the challenge of setting up stations in the outdoors, fighting Mother Nature and getting on the radio. Our Field Day has something for everyone, and I invite you to participate. Want to help some Cub Scouts learn about radio? Join me in teaching them at the Field Day site. Want to help cook? Yes, we have people who do that too! Want to operate? We have SSB, CW stations to operate. There is a GOTA (Get on the Air) station set up just for those of you who have not been on HF much and want to try it out. We also have a bonus station working 6 meters…the tent I call the Grabowski tent - you call and call and call, and sometimes you wake up the 6 meter gods and get slammed with pile ups. It can be both fun and maddening, but you don’t know what is out there unless you call. So, it rewards only those who work the band (sometimes)! We also have many flyers to send out to various places to encourage the public to find us.

Everyone is welcome to join us for our Field Day feast…we encourage you to bring a side dish, salad or dessert. Whatever is left over feeds the people who work overnight on the bands! The feast begins around 4:30-ish.

Field Day really is a feast celebrating ham radio. Come on out! (And bring some mosquito repellent and sun screen…this Field Day is outdoors!)

73 Rob K9RST

Spring and change

This past spring season has been marked with a number of changes, not all fun ones to acknowledge. For one, I was stunned to learn that Bill Rowe, AB9SV, became a SK. The news was even more shocking for many of us because we had just seen him. There is a funny thing that happens to us in this hobby…we work hard together, we play hard together and we kind of meet people where they are in life. So it was with Bill. He was an incredible volunteer for a number of ham radio groups, but I worked most closely with him on the Chicago Marathon ham radio support team. For this he was a tireless volunteer. He pulled together his own team of people, organized them and then ran the aid station. More of us knew Bill for his work with Skywarn. He had a number of key roles, including being a net control operator for the liaison net. Bill had one of those disarming smiles that showed that he clearly understood what was happening, but he would never express it publicly. His eyes and smile said everything! I loved that most about Bill. He had a quiet way of just getting things done. So, to be honest, I never asked what he did before he was in ham radio. It wasn’t until I spoke to his son, Bill Jr. that I learned of his incredible career in electronics. Makes perfect sense…but I just never asked him what he did. Turns out he was a pioneer in the emerging television industry and holds several patents for his work at companies like Zenith, Philips and LG Electronics. So, shame on me for not asking more about Bill’s early life. I often get so focused on mission…achieving a goal, that I don’t always stop and just listen. So, I have a new New Year’s resolution! I will miss Bill and will keep the memory of his warm smile alive.

Meanwhile, long time NSRC Board member, Scott Irwin, W8UFO, announced that he will be leaving town for job opportunity in Florida. Scott has been a very significant, behind-the-scenes player for us here. If you have been to our web site, worked D-Star, been to one of his classes, took an Exam from him, worked with him at one of our numerous public service events, then you know the impact he has had on our ham community. I have asked him several times how he came to get this unusual call…it is a story worth asking him sometime. We will miss you, Scott – and yes, I realize that you won’t be that far away, given technology, we will miss having access to your knowledge and your can-do spirit. Thank you for all that you have done for us and ham radio here.

Spring also seems to get people out of the doldrums of winter and start thinking of warmer times. Well, your NSRC Board has been doing just that. We are on the verge of revealing several new ideas…for one, we are thinking we will have a NSRC picnic, time and place to be determined. It might replace or be part of the Fox Hunt, or a separate event all to itself. Like many of these ideas, we’d love to hear from you about what you want from your club. The winter banquet, for instance: it seems that many people like the format and the location of the current banquet, but would prefer a different time of year. Well, we have been playing with several scenarios, including moving the event to a different venue (Chevy Chase is going to be doing major renovations next year, so we have to find a new venue anyway.) Stay tuned, as they say.

The biggest sign of end of winter for me is the annual trip to Dayton. As many of you know, I leave on Wednesday to go to the QRP seminar known as “Four Days in May.” About 200 people go to the seminars that run a wide range of topics. Some can be quite entertaining and historical; others can be very challenging technically. Either way, it is what Dayton has come to mean for me…a way to meet up with others with similar interests. I know there is a good bunch of NRSC folks who will be going to the Contest University classes this year, also on Thursday at a different hotel. The point is you can come to Dayton and not spend your entire allowance, meet up with good old friends, or make new ones. You might even learn a few things along the way at the many seminars they hold. You can count on rain and a few surprises…some not so pleasing to the senses! Remember when the sewer lines backed up at the Hara Center! That made for a very memorable day in the steamy hot, outdoor flea market!! This year, there is a movement to get a NSRC group photo at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning at the main entrance, where the ticket windows are, on the southwest side of the building. If you are in town, stop by and be part of the group photo.

That’s it for this month. Thanks for keeping the RF hopping with good conversation, good cheer and great times. See you all at Dayton.

73 Rob K9RST

Ham radio and public service

I just completed working the Shamrock Shuffle with a small team of ham radio operators who help provide communications for the medical teams in the field. We were a small team, maybe 12 people – four at the headquarters and the remaining split out to the two aid stations on the course. We have been doing this work now for about 5 years and the Shamrock is the tiny brother of the Chicago Marathon, where we also provide assistance. But just before I took off for the weekend of fun, I had a chance to listen to the RAIN report who had presented a condensed version of Mitch Stern’s Dayton forum on preparing for public service events. And while I agree with 100% of what Mitch said about being prepared, I wanted to add one more angle.

To me, the very first piece of business is to make sure you have a client relationship with whomever you serve. I tried for years to involve ham radio with my local community and came up very short (most towns on the North Shore feel they can handle whatever comes their way). I moved my focus to the Red Cross, thinking surely they could use radios in their ops…only to find that they had come to rely entirely on computers and satellite technology. Where I have found a home has been with the multiple levels of local runs or other type of races. This started with us with the Evanston Bike Club’s North Shore Century. We have deployed APRS and radio teams to help support the bikers in the field who had become injured or whose bikes had broken down. Over the years, it has developed into a very a strong relationship with the organizers. Eventually, the organizers from the Chicago Marathon sought us out as well. That, it turns out, is a more complex relationship and as we need to be very targeted in the services we offer. But in both cases, it is absolutely essential that we recognize where we fit into the food chain. We serve them!

In Boy Scouting I often heard the term, “servant leader.” I always found that construction weird…so I did a little research and found the term has deep historical roots (related mostly to how a King should govern his people); but that it took a more modern spin in the 70’s when Robert Greenleaf coined it for modern use. Now it is being used in multiple settings from political to religious. To me, this idea resonates on many levels. People did not want ham radio operators around because we became arrogant. No one had radio in those days and now we have been replaced with a zillion new technological toys. We are not on the bleeding edge. Plus, many of the organizations I spoke with had bad experiences with the ham teams. Most hams provided their own gear, offered their own time, but then they started to become less focused on the mission and more focused on building empires. At the Red Cross, many years back, a group of hams pulled all of their gear out, when things did not go their way, and left the Red Cross with no communications. Same thing with the Marathon. In this context, I could see why people did not want to have a group of hapless volunteers hanging around. Forget all of the public service preparedness business and building go kits, if you bring the wrong attitude to the party, you will not be invited.

So, we have been successful in recent years serving all of the organizations I have mentioned, simply because we have made a relentless effort to focus on them and not us. We still come prepared. Carry our own gear. Provide our own parking and pay for our own expenses. But, we don’t need special vehicles, or special tents or equipment…we just serve.

So, next time you work on your go kit…make sure you add the most important tool in the bag…your attitude. Bring your willingness to do whatever is required for the job and people will come to appreciate that we do bring more to the party.

73 Rob K9RST

World Traveler

My work schedule has been taking me on the road this month and my first stop was in Halifax. Nova Scotia. I did get a little worried when I checked my bags with United when the young man asks, “Where is Halifax?” OK. We can all be forgiven for not knowing our geography, but he is in the airline business? (and in fact, I had to look it up on a map myself!). Halifax is in a time zone that is 2 hours ahead of us…so you get some idea of how far away they are from New York.

Working as a filmmaker has its unique challenges…especially when visiting our friendly neighbors to the north, where the government heavily protects their movie industry. So, I have to be somewhat cagey about what I say at the border about the purpose of my trip. I know, I could tell the truth…and that could work, but often they will stop me and tell me to go back home because they don’t want Americans taking Canadian jobs. I found the key to my gaining entry in the past was to point out that I was hiring Canadians…so I was stimulating their economy…but rather than even get into that discussion, I decided to concoct a small story. When asked, “What brings you to Halifax, Mr. Orr?” My response was..”personal, visiting a friend.” His follow up question was, “Where did you ever make a friend from Halifax?” Reasonable question, so I answered, “Ham Radio.” Well, the ruse worked, as he let me enter, but I did not have a good plan B. I did not have the name of a single Canadian operator from Halifax at the ready. The thing is, it really shows the incredible respect that Canadians do have for the hobby…it still is a common way to communicate across their vast country and so I didn’t mind drawing on that to help me safely enter the country (and I wasn’t doing anything illegal anyway, just wanted to avoid long lines at Immigration!)

Halifax is actually a wonderful city, loaded with fascinating Maritime history. Turns out it lays 100 miles from the place where the Titanic sank, and many of the dead were buried here in a solemn cemetery overlooking the harbor. It is also the spot where the largest explosion ever took place, prior to Hiroshima. Two merchant marine war ships collided in the harbor during WWI, and literally blew the town down. 2000 people died. It was an amazing part of history that I was not aware of, and found the way people responded to the scene just amazing. Boston, for instance sent hundreds of thousands of dollars in aid and so started a strong bond with the people of Halifax as a result. Sorry, folks, no time for radio work on this trip…but next time. I hope to go back one summer or fall when the weather is nicer.


Like many of you, you are probably going a little stir crazy with this cold weather. So, I thought I would work the ARRL SSB DX contest. I had a great time working stations, mostly on 10 meters…I worked almost everything south to Argentina and a raft of Japanese operators before I had to make room for the grand kids.

One ugly casualty, however, was my PC. I fired it up…and it had been a while since it was fired up…and found it was dead. Toast. No response. So, I spent part of the contest tearing the power supply apart to see if I could resuscitate it. No luck…and it was an XP…make sure you hear Mark Klocksin’s talk on what to do with that old XP machine at the next club meeting. So, off I went to my friends a Krex and asked them to rebuild a computer for me. I still like the fact that you can build a custom computer and don’t have to choke down the Apple with no serial ports, DVD drives, expansion slots…some things never die!

73 Rob K9RST

Road trip

I got to spend some quality time on the road this past month. That is always fun, although not when the temperatures are 21 below with wind chills twice that! I was in Winona, MN to work on a continuing video project for St. Mary’s University. It was exhausting just getting dressed to go outdoors. At least four layers were needed and no skin could be exposed or you would freeze within minutes. I had to work on my tires and just having my hands open to the cold and wind was stunning. On the other hand, I wish I could describe the beauty of the scene as well. There was this magical evening light falling on the Mississippi river basin and the howling wind was whipping the snow into a froth. It was both magical and frightening. Definitely glad I was inside my warm car for most of the journey. Anyway, having spent 5 days driving around MN and WI, I had lots of quality thinking time.

My last Prez Blog generated quite a bit of interest in various areas (story of my early education in South Bend working at WSBT – and the transmitter clean up days). I have been experimenting with Twitter…it still seems odd to me, but I can surely see the benefits of the service, especially for short blasts of news or last minute updates on things. For most items, all you have to do is type #andthename (i.e. #Superbowl) or whatever people call their conversation and you can be included in a long stream of observers and commentators. I have also found the best use of this service is to send alerts to people with links to movies, or articles. I have been sending these NSRC Prez blogs out to my greater Twitter world followers. Of course, to follow me, you have to request permission to “follow” @roborr. To be completely honest, I am still struggling to understand all of this. However, I do think there is a place for this Twitter thing. Facebook, on the other hand, I am still on the fence. I have a Facebook account and occasionally I will see what the kids are doing, but I am generally suspicious of the way they don’t protect your information. So, here I was thinking all high and mighty about these things only to find that our own government has been snatching information for what appears to be good reasons and the virus boys in Russia have been hacking our credit card accounts. So no place is safe anymore.

When I got home, I was greeted not with a warm friendly hello but with an urgent request to fix the oven! I dropped everything and went to it…only to find that there are no schematics online or in the service manual. First, I tried to make sure we didn’t do something silly like program it wrong (remember when ovens only had one button…on and off…or a temp setting). This darn thing is operated by a small computer! Still didn’t work…but I could hear relays clicking, so I knew it was something more electrical than computer. Digging further into the deep recesses of the oven, which sounds simple but really is a pain in the can to get to, I finally found the problem. The 220v line that feeds the system had cooked itself! It was completely melted down. I did service my oven a few weeks back by putting it through the self cleaning mode, but apparently, I have since learned, never do that! All it does is cook the components. So, I have been rebuilding the electrical elements and was almost ready to finish the job when I realized I better check the heat rating of the 10 gauge power cable. Wow…I needed to have wire that is rated for 125 degrees Centigrade. I Googled the to see what the rating was for the wire I was going to use and found it was nowhere near what was needed. I did spend several useless hours trying to find a place to buy the right wire and finally just went online to order the stuff. I should also explain that a local reputable service company charges $200 for the first hour of a service call and they would not be available for a week. I figured what could I lose? I am a ham radio guy…I should be able to handle an oven! So, the parts are on order. It has been an interesting journey and I did finally find the schematic buried way in the back. I am very optimistic. Either I have either beat the system or I will be buying a new oven soon! Stay tuned.

Stay warm….73



When I was growing up in South Bend, I was a member of a Scouting Explorer Post at WSBT. We did all sorts of production work including helping with remote broadcasts (we had to haul those huge cables that were needed for the cameras in those days). We also produced a weekly radio show that, in retrospect, did more to prepare me for my career in video production than almost any other activity. Anyway, once a month, the station would shut down overnight for transmitter maintenance. We went once to help out and it was quite an education. Basically, they would tear the entire place down completely, clean and replace tubes and components preemptively.

Not that I am even that organized, but generally, during the holiday season, I try to do the same to my ham shack (and office). First off, you would be amazed how much dust collects amongst all of the radio gear and secondly, it gives you a chance to refresh your memory about why you installed things a particular manner (good practice #27…label cables!). My station, like most of ours, started humbly enough and then, as we acquired new radios or accessories, we quickly would add wires. Soon you have a hairball! So, I am in the process of totally re-engineering my ham shack for the umpti-umpth time. I have a new solar panel powered battery backup system I have been working on for far too long. One of my Scouting friends returned one of my boat anchor radios, the Kenwood TS520, so I have been trying to figure out how to get that installed. Also, after a season of public service work, my UHF/VHF radios are just piled high. Need to organize and build a go-kit (there’s a New Year’s resolution!). Amongst the biggest issues I need to straighten out are my coaxes. In the old days, I would use almost any piece of coax I could find and use it. As I have added radios, I am now finding I am using the wrong type of coax for the band or now it is time to replace the older cables with newer ones that might be better suited for the assignment. That is typically part of my summer maintenance program (I call it a program but really it is on a when I get to it basis.) This seems more true to the case, as I learn more about good radio and engineering practice, I re-build my humble shack.

So, call it a New Year’s resolution or whatever, but it seems to be a good practice to continue. My biggest issue is the computer that I have been using in the shack. It is a Windows XP driven PC and the time has come to move it up to the next generation of computing technology (There is always something to change).

Grandchildren filter

I often wonder if we are the last of a breed. I am speaking mostly of people who love the power of radio to beam RF to various devices and learn about new applications. It is true that the current generation of young people feed on “Apps”…perhaps that is where their passions will lie. My cousin’s son is an IT engineer and has been working for the past three summers with Microsoft building Apps. Apparently, he has a real knack for the skill as they are offering him a very nice job (with a commensurate salary) when he graduates. You don’t hear about those opportunities in the radio field so much. Building a career in commercial radio is very bleak these days. Cell phones might be the closest field to radio, but those have become small computers and with phones as an afterthought. Clearly, the engineering passion for the younger generations definitely is computer driven. So, that’s why I wonder if we will ever get the numbers of young people into ham radio? Seems to me that when I was younger (and couldn’t afford much), I caught the fire for radio. That early interest was fueled when I finally could devote more time and resources (meaning money) to the hobby. I watch my own grand children. Every day they come down to play with my iPad…oh, they do enjoy pretend to talk on the radio and messing with all of the buttons in my shack, but largely they are obsessed with the interactive experiences they can enjoy on an iPad. Something to ponder while the temperatures outside are so frightening!

For me, I am grateful to get my ham shack back in operation and have renewed my vow to make at least one contact per day. I wish one and all a healthy and joyous New Year.

73 Rob K9RST

Tornado Alley

My son answered a request for a truck to pick up and deliver some clothes for the relief effort in Washington, IL. Having spent several years helping the Red Cross do just this very thing, I warned him that it might be tricky.  But I am getting ahead of the story.

So, there was this lady in Hammond, Indiana, apparently unemployed and on disability with lots of time on her hands. She decided to start a legitimate charity for various causes and had already done quite a bit of work helping individual families around this area.  Hammond is not known for its charitable organizations…in fact, the place is downright bleak, so I was very skeptical. When the tornadoes hit Illinois, she rallied her 4000 Facebook Friends to donate what turned out to be a garage full of stuff in just two days! The problem was she had no way of getting the collection to Washington, IL.  She had been talking to the minister at the local Lutheran Church in Washington, who had posted their recovery needs: clothing, food, water.  This was also posted on their Facebook page! That seemed like a reasonable enough connection to me, so I shelved my skepticism and told my son I would accompany him to Hammond and then to Washington.

Before we left, I shot a quick note off to my ham radio buddies in Peoria and told them what we were doing.  They were already working at the relief shelter at the very church to which we were headed, so that had me feeling more comfortable – at least we would have someone on the inside to help.

When we got to the lady’s garage, it was indeed stuffed with bags of clothing, largely not inventoried or organized.  It seemed like lots of junk – but the charity lady had expectations of sorting all of the stuff at the church when they arrived. We loaded the truck up because her crew of helpers never did show up and off we went.  Before leaving town, however, we decided to stop by Wal-Mart to purchase some bottled water, something that all relief efforts almost never have enough in supply.

Driving was pleasant enough. It was a beautiful Fall day, perfect blue skies and crisp temperatures as we headed southwest. All of the cornfields had already been harvested, so the landscape was rather bleak, but the blue sky brightened the day.  Our first sense of anything odd wasn’t until we started getting close to the tornado’s path, about 20 miles from Washington.  We passed a large collection of power company workers, heading south.  Then we noticed the debris fields…and it was impressive.  The high voltage power lines and steel poles where ripped from their supports and tossed around like little toys.  Repair crews were working on the lines.  As we got closer to the town, the mess was even more apparent…parts of buildings strewn everywhere, metal wrapped around trees, large trees just sheared apart, and thousands of smaller shredded items strewn everywhere.  It was reported that someone found a cancelled check in Bolingbrook that was a from someone’s home in Washington IL…transported by this storm!  As we made the final approach to the church destination, we could see the steeple on the hill in front of us.  There wasn’t much out there but barren corn fields…so the church really stood out.  Oh, and there was an occasional flattened farm house along the way.  It seemed odd that from our vantage point, everything looked more or less normal, but as we got closer, we realized the church and its massive buildings were untouched…but just to the south of it, hundreds of homes were completely flattened.  That was the most powerful image of all…whatever was in the way of the storm, was destroyed. The local Ford car dealer across from the housing subdivision was completely untouched.  It all seemed so random and very decisive.  It was all or nothing! 

We were directed by our ham radio buddies to approach the church from the east side and to drop our load.  We had arrived early, but the church was already a hive of activity. It was the shelter, the relief operation and the focal point for everything, or so it seemed.  Volunteers stood outside the church, eager to unload our truck.  I ran in to see the ham folks and was a little dismayed to learn that the powers to be suddenly didn’t want our truck unloaded yet. (Apparently the people running the relief operation were in Peoria…the minister was being replaced by a relief professional).  They were adjusting strategies. In fact the church was already overloaded with food and clothing, two days after the event. I reported back to my son, only to find that the truck had already been emptied!  We had to re-pack all of our stuff and much of the other stuff that had since arrived.  We were told to report to another facility.   So, just before we left, I called the lady in charge of the next location and she said, “No.  Please do not drop the clothes off here….we just got two semi-loads of clothing and we have no room!”  Two semi-loads.  Really?  I could see my son was getting a little frustrated with this now.  So, here we were with a load of clothes and no place to drop them.  I called back to our ham friends on the radio and asked where should we go now? He suggested another facility…so we headed off and found an official in a car waiting for us!  But then he asked, “Where are the other trucks?” We looked at him quizzically and learned that he was expecting two semi-trucks with clothes on pallets and could not accept our bags of clothes in this facility!  Obviously, the semis went to the wrong place.  The fog of war was in full force.

I called back to net control on the radio and asked them what to do now?  Net control suggested the Goodwill Store we passed down the road…so we back-tracked and unloaded.  At first they were grateful, but as we continued to unload more and more, they were visibly concerned. This was too much stuff for even them.  They accepted the load, but said that if the churches don’t claim it all in two weeks, they would have to let it go.

We were grateful to get our truck emptied and felt good about what we had done…but many, many lessons were learned.  For one, I violated the first rule of relief response…don’t self deploy.  But hey! I was not travelling under the guise of any served agency…just a concerned citizen working for the church’s relief effort at the time.  Secondly, I don’t think we fully understand the power of social media to solve problems.  The difficulty becomes how to control the response.  People are not satisfied with an appeal to send money, especially when many of those agencies don’t seem to spend the money appropriately. The issue is magnified when you may not have the money yourself to give!  But still, you want to help?! People want to see where their gifts go.  I don’t blame them.  People want to do something to help. So, two days into the disaster relief, the bigger agencies were just beginning to establish a response plan.  We heard on the way back that they had collected all of the clothing they needed (and I learned from another friend that those semis loaded with clothes were meant for the Philippine Island typhoon relief but never got there because of problems securing a plane.)

Yes, there are great organizations out there that do this work…but there is a moment in time when chaos reigns and everyone/no one is in charge.  That is a tough time for the people and the immediate community affected by the disaster.  In time, the Feds stepped in and declared it a disaster. This releases all the resources of FEMA and the relief effort resets.

Because of the strange random nature of the tornado destruction, many services were still working…cell phones, electrical power were functioning for the most part.  Still, ham radio had a small presence, largely to connect the shelter at the church with the main operations in Peoria.  This was the result of the close ties that had been developed between the local hams and the Red Cross.  Both groups were ready to do their part. Still, what I learned is that there are huge numbers of new groups who have come along to provide aid as well…not just the traditional Salvation Army, Red Cross and church groups.  Now there were other ad hoc groups as well.  Coordinating the work of all these folks is becoming a rather interesting challenge for whatever agency runs the relief effort.

Still, we felt good about what we had done.  We did something.  I enjoyed seeing my ham friends in action but as we drove back to Chicago, I think it really hit both of us that the scale and depth of the problem goes way beyond providing food or clothing.  A thousand people have to rebuild their lives and that process is going to take years.  Not sure what we can do to help that process.  What to do when the TV trucks leave. I also resolved to finish building my go kit and keep my batteries charged.  My radio died as we were leaving town. Lesson learned.



Marriage...or 10 meters

In the 50’s, I was an avid shortwave listener as a youth. I didn’t realize then that I was living through what was to be one of the hottest DX seasons in modern times because of the timing of the sun cycle. I was just young and loved listening to the world on the radio. Then, life got complicated. We moved. My radios got lost in the many family transitions and shortwave/ham radio was not part of my life until my Physics professor in college rekindled my interest in radio. To jump start me, he gave me his old rig when he was upgrading…and so my second career in ham radio was born.

When I finally did get licensed, 10 meters was good…and I suspect I took it for granted back then. I didn’t realize how fleeting and elusive radio could be. I worked the world chasing all sorts of stations in Europe and Russia, all without much effort. I even got a 10-10 number. Then we went to a solar minimum and the bottom dropped out…for a long, long time. Like no 10 meters for years. It was a dark uncertain place…but one that I had somehow gotten used to. Flash forward to about a week or two ago…

There was this little contest…CQ WW SSB…and I had a little problem. Seems that this contest fell exactly on the same weekend as my 34th wedding anniversary! So, I didn’t really expect to do much operating, like none…and off we headed for a weekend retreat in a hotel in Wisconsin. That is when I first learned of the most spectacular 10 meter event that was unfolding before us all.

My smart phone was buzzing with reports of the incredible band openings on 10 and 15. I tried to put all of that out of my mind until I got home early on Sunday morning. First thing I did was turn on the HF rig…and to my absolute amazement, I heard too what others had been saying. I started working at the farthest end of 10 meters, 28,999 and worked my way slowly back. I have never heard so many signals from so many stations up and down that band. I was simply amazed. I was just searching and pouncing, but I worked all sorts of new countries. I am still a little overwhelmed by the experience…and I only had a small taste of the fun. I hope you had a chance to participate or at least listen to the opening. I don’t know what was happening that weekend that caused all of this excitement (although it does make one wonder how many other days there are similar opening and no one is there to take advantage of it.)

For a few hours on Sunday, the magic was back in a big way…and then the contest died, work called (deadlines don’t seem to go away) and the 10 meter band was silent again, but the memory and excitement was there. Kind of keeps you going!

Hope you had a great weekend…get on the radio and have a terrific Thanksgiving. Be grateful that we have a little RF in our lives!


Reflections on Public Service

Coming ‘round the corner. This past month has been a total blur for me. I was asked to make a presentation at the Peoria Ham Fest (a really wonderful Fest, by the way…unfortunately it conflicts with the W9DXCC convention…we will have to work on that!!). My talk was to discuss the impact that the Boston Marathon has had on ham radio. You should know that every single American Marathon uses ham radio teams in one form or another. The older ones, like NY and Boston, even the Marine Corps have well defined roles that the hams have played for years. Some people within the ham radio community think that we should not be doing this work. Chicago has only utilized hams in the past 5 years and because of that, we have navigated the legal complexities of serving these public/private events pretty well. For us, we work very closely with the other 12,000 volunteers who help make this event run. We report directly to the medical director and our traffic is only medical dispatch and related calls. We don’t do event logistics…we only provide medical support. There is still quite a bit of disagreement within our community about exactly what our place is in events like this…and to be sure, it is good to have this discussion. We are not allowed to accept money or to support for-profit organizations. This point has been drilled home pretty clearly recently with discussions about how ham radio has supported hospitals. Basically, if you are a ham employed by a for-profit hospital, you have to go off the clock to do your ham radio work. This has been well defined by the FCC and has cleaned up many relationships where hams have been used to support organizations that really should not have used us in the first place (the Rose Bowl parade, for instance).

Now, once you allow us to the table, then it is up to us to act professionally and perform. Frankly, I cannot think of a better training ground for our up and coming hams or even our experienced teams, to practice our skills and talent under stressful conditions. I really don’t see many other opportunities for us to do this work…an added advantage is that this gives ham radio a public face, especially with the Police and Fire Departments, who in the past have often had bad experiences with some ham groups. I know when I came to the Red Cross to work, I was told that the local Chapter would not use hams ever again for their communications because the group that had been supporting them walked out of the building with all of their gear and quit! Needless to say, during the 10 years I worked with the local Chapter, we bridged that gap, but the point is well made: as a group we can be our own worst enemies. Our egos, our demands or attention, do not play well with a group that is looking for you to protect their backs. While we have a history of offering service, we don’t always perform that service in a manner that those agencies might prefer. Too often I have heard stories about hams who assumed space in facilities and behaved liked they owned the place…rather than being respectful of the agency and taking a true subservient role. The organizers of the Chicago Marathon have often heard that many of the other marathons struggle with the hams on their team because they are not serving the mission of the group. This message plays well for any of us who aspire to do public service work, through ARES, RACES or any ad hoc group. Be humble and serve should be our motto…and let’s face it, we are not the hottest technology heap. We are not the only game in town, even though many of us think we are. These are things to reflect upon.

27 of us served the Evanston Bike Club’s North Shore Century…and they had a record year with our 2600 bikers. This is another event where our work with them has improved every year and they have been extraordinarily grateful for our service. In this case, we do a bit more than what is strictly allowed by law, but this is a true charitable event where all the money goes back to good causes. Thanks to all who have help make our participation over the years such a success.

So, come Oct 13, when the Chicago Marathon ends, I hope to get my life back again!!