Using the Wisconsin Network - Part 31

by Andy Nemec, KB9ALN

Someone once said, in describing packet radio, that it is a mode that is looking for it's "niche". One may easily draw that conclusion these days from simple observation. Not all packeteers use the mode for the same thing. Some use it for information, reading everything that comes off the BBS. Some use the Sale ads on the BBS to keep track of pricing on used gear. Some use it to communicate with their buddies, and still others use it to chase rare DX. In fact, one can almost call packet radio a tool rather than a particular mode in the traditional sense. While it might not be obvious to the casual observer, this is what packet radio is becoming - a resource more than a preoccupation. At least to some members of the packet community, it is regarded more as a utility than a passion. Which is not a bad way to look at it when you pursue emergency communications as part of the hobby we call Amateur Radio.

Packet radio can become a valuable tool in emergency communications, rather than a replacement for a particular way of doing things. While I have not experienced every kind of disaster operation, there are some that I and other amateurs have experienced. In the process of dealing with these disaster scenarios, packet radio has revealed itself as a rather helpful resource. What can you use packet radio for in an emergency?

Well, there are things that packet radio is simply not cut out to do. If everyone used packet exclusively as a means to report storm activity, the Skywarn program would be of questionable value. However, there are some areas where packet has found it's "niche". In the case of the Skywarn system, it can certainly aid meteorologists in getting information before a net control operator is able to get to the NWS office. Many such operations configure the packet station to print out incoming messages so that meteorologists can read storm reports before the net control operator arrives. While voice is often the quickest and most efficient method to convey severe weather reports, it does no good when there is nobody on the other end of the radio circuit. This is one tool that the Skywarn people can find useful.

And we can't neglect APRS. The Automated Position Reporting System can provide "pinpoint" coordinates eliminating any confusion as to a spotter's location. While these packets do not travel through a network well, they certainly can be used locally, with the coordinates relayed via a conventional method. After the storm, many ham radio operators accompany the Red Cross on Damage Assessment rides. An operator with voice capabilities and a laptop can cover both a quantity of information and satisfy a need for immediate communications. Nothing beats packet for passing a quantity of information. What can take a long time conveying via voice can be sent in minutes via packet. Damage assessment data can be saved on the laptop and uploaded later, calls for immediate needs can be handled by voice.

I have also found that, when working with Kewaunee County RACES, packet is a helpful tool there. When long lists of any nature need to be transferred, packet provides an easy way to do this. We had a drill "casualty" list that would have taken 10 minutes to send and verify by voice. With a good typist on the other end, we were able to send it easily in seconds to our Public Information Officer in Green Bay.

When working the Weyauwega train derailment, we found two good uses for packet. First, it was a good backup to our voice radio path to the Division of Emergency Management offices in Madison. The second was to have a method of conferring with the folks in Madison without anyone easily overhearing our conferences. Emergency coordinators often have fears of someone (from the press or general public) overhearing part of a conversation and misinterpreting what they hear. Packet is a little tougher to listen in on, partly because of the equipment, and partly because of the way it comes across the screen when you are monitoring. This, and the ability to sit back and carefully compose a note made our jobs easier - we could think of what we needed to talk about rather than trying to remember it on the fly. And we did not have to be quite as diligent in our choice of wording. Of course, we never did forget that someone could listen in on our conversation. That comes with the territory.

As you can see, packet can be a useful tool when working in emergencies. In the next few installments, we will explore the mechanics of incorporating Packet Radio into your emergency operations.

On to Part 32 - More info on Emergency Operations and Packet Radio

Back to Part 30  - Setting up an AEA TNC for mail forwarding

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