APPS work! March 2019

Emergency Response and preparedness.In February we invited some people to discuss the work they are doing with ham radio for the public service sector. This is a very important part of ham radio, and we can be very useful in those harrowing times, so long as we are prepared for the adventure. Being prepared means many things: Having you own life together (clothing, skills, means); knowing the agency you are serving; being properly invited to help (no self-deployments) and being trained for your work. When you are deployed, you must be totally self-sufficient. So, you could have your bags packed and be perfectly prepared for the “Big One” and never be called on to do anything. Ever! What seems like a more likely scenario, however, is that you would face an urgent situation at home or in your neighborhood. I was rudely reminded of this reality when our power went out in the middle of the recent polar vortex.

It was 3 a.m. We were deep into the coldest night in years and my wife, who is a notorious light sleeper, suddenly jumped up and announced that the power just went out (how the heck she knew this is one of life’s mysteries. A mom’s intuition!) I was having a restless sleep myself as I was half worrying about just that sort of thing occurring, but I would never admit that to her! So, after verifying that the problem was wider than just us (like wondering if did I forgot to pay the electric bill? Not even considering why a company would send out a technician out to disarm our meter at 3 a.m. in -22 weather?!!) I called Com Ed to report the outage. Well, their automated system did not recognize my social security number, phone number and my account number were buried somewhere in the basement, in the dark. I was standing in the hallway, half dressed and no flash light. They would not accept my report since I could not be confirmed as a customer. Argh. So, I did the next best thing. I called 911. In my mind this was a potential emergency. When I told the dispatcher that I was reporting a power outage, she became a little testy because I called 911. (I wonder how many of you know your Police non-emergency number?) I totally agreed with her, this was not a life-threatening event yet! This was not a medical emergency. Still, I was cold and foggy and a little frustrated. I told her Com Ed would not accept my report and I wondered if she could? She then told me there was a wide spread outage in Glenview. That was all I needed to know. I jumped into action with a plan I had been thinking about for years. I went into full Field Day mode.

I threw together some serious outer garments and went to our detached, unheated back garage to get my generator. I brought inside to warm it up a bit. Meanwhile, I switched off the circuit breaker for the furnace on the electrical panel as my plan was to wire the furnace to the generator. Also, I didn’t want to back feed power through the system. I had heard stories of electricians getting hurt because of generators were pushing power back up to the grid. I opened the junction box to the furnace and reworked the wires. This is much harder than you might think when you have a flashlight in your mouth (note to self…get a head light for these situations.) The generator would power my furnace and the power supplies for the thermostats only. I ran an extension cord out to the garage and was almost ready to roll. I forgot that the garage door had to be opened manually, since there was no power. I pulled the release handle and lifted the door up just far enough to expose the exhaust for the generator to the outside. Frigid cold came rushing into our front garage. I pulled the generator starter cord and got nothing. I tried two more times and still nothing. I hoisted the generator back inside to give it more time to thaw out (I am sure the oil was not designed for such deep cold temperatures!)

Meanwhile, we laced the house with candles, and I started a fire in the fireplace. (Note to self: make sure you have fire place wood close to the house and don’t use scented candles!!) With some heat and little light, we had a chance to settle down and think. The silence was almost painful although you could hear the house groaning under the strains imposed by the cold outside. I grabbed my Kenwood TH-6A. Old trusty. Many years ago, I had borrowed some programming for it from Shel Epstein. He had loaded it with local FM radio and TV stations. The TV channels are now no longer in use, but the FM radio part still worked. At least now we had a sense that we were connected to the wider community. I returned to the generator and tried firing it up again. This time it worked! I plugged all the cables together and the furnace fired up! Well, at least the fan ran. The heat was not coming on. Again, not thinking to well, I figured the new Nest thermostat I recently installed needed the internet to function (I learned since that was not the case…it can function manually). So, I ran a power cable to the router for the Internet. Well, that was going very slowly, and I wondered if most of that wider system was down as well. So, I started to reinstall the old thermostat! That worked.

Finally, we had a little heat and sun was coming up. We did lose about 15 degrees inside the house. While I was sitting there, I decided to load up the Com Ed app on my phone. That was wonderful. I could report the outage and get updates. “6:00 a.m. Problem is being assessed by Com Ed.” “6:30 a.m.: Power to your location will be restored” And it was! Amazing.

I am now a huge fan of this App…but I learned many things from this exercise. I am stock piling water, candles, matches, batteries, radio, flashlights and keeping my generator in good working order. I should make a list of important phone numbers, but I don’t see that happening. The cell phone was very handy for a flashlight or for notes. The larger question is how do we connected to the outside world? As we move to a more automated universe, the Apps may be our only link to outside services. However, when the wireless grid goes down in a truly nasty event, then what? Suddenly, enter ham radio. Fact is, I was fairly prepared thanks to all of the work we have done with Field Day, Boy Scouts and other events. While I did not use the repeaters, I could have done so. I have battery back up in the basement as well. So, there truly is a place for ham radio right here at home….and we all need to do is be prepared. And, as we muscle through this challenging Winter, who knows what March will bring!

Rob Orr


Rob Orr