Using the Wisconsin Network - Part 32

by Andy Nemec, KB9ALN

In the last installment of this series, we took a look at packet radio and how it might relate to emergency communications. We noted that a well thought out system and a properly configured station can be most helpful when performing emergency work. In this installment, we will discuss how to determine if packet radio can be helpful to you, and what to about it if you think it can be.

"Where do you want to go today?"

With apologies to the software folks in Washington, we can modify this question a bit to read "What do you want to do today?". Will you be trying to correct a communications deficiency, or are there any particular special needs you will be attempting to fill? In order to answer this question, you will have to rely on your past experience and by thinking your emergency communications plan through.

While we are trained to be prepared for any emergency, readiness for hurricanes is Wisconsin is a bit unnecessary. Your time as an emergency communicator should be devoted to preparing for and thinking about the kinds of emergencies you are more likely to encounter. Start by thinking about your local situation. Is there any industry in your county that deals with hazardous material? Are you near a major airport? Are there any environmental risks you may have to deal with, such as dams, nuclear power plants, or any other unique risks?

All of these disaster scenarios can necessitate an evacuation, or worse yet, mass casualties. In these scenarios, packet can be a positive supplement to your other communications capability. Packet radio is excellent for relaying large lists of evacuees to the Red Cross or other disaster management agencies, for example. Packet can also be used to transmit other long, involved instructions to and from field workers. It can also, when properly set up, allow one to access the internet for information on dealing with chemical spills or other hazardous material incidents. If you have a large quantity of hazardous materials being used or shipped through your county, you may find this capability interesting.

One seasonal threat we deal with in Wisconsin is severe weather of various kinds. If you often have trouble staffing a weather service office promptly, a packet station can help. Setting up a printer to print out storm data will certainly help meteorologists get data without trying to listen to a radio. In the winter time, snowfall amounts can be reported without making phone calls. Do you routinely have a problem communicating with a particular part of your county, or with a particular place outside of your county? Packet can be a big help if a node is in place to relay your signal.

We have found it very useful to communicate with the Wisconsin Department of Emergency Management via packet. Voice contact is marginal and inconsistent. There are enough network nodes to complete the circuit and communicate with Madison from Northeastern Wisconsin. There are nodes that we use to conference with stations not only from Madison, but from neighboring counties as well.

Speaking of conferencing, packet is particularly useful for this purpose. 4 to 6 stations can conference on a typical conference node, and this can be very helpful for coordinating activities with other agencies

. By this time (and with knowledge of your past experience), you should have a pretty good idea of where you might put packet radio to use. Now let's talk about implementing it. You can take this process step-by-step:

1) Test your idea with existing equipment before investing in the necessary equipment. If you know people with laptops computers and TNC's, go on-site and see how it actually works. Check paths and access to nodes and such.

2) Plan your system. Do you plan to have amateur radio access to the internet through a gateway station? Where would it be, who would control it? Obviously, most laptop computers we will be using will be older and less capable than newer units. If you plan on accessing large amounts of data on a frequent basis, perhaps your station at "headquarters" (the county E.O.C.) can be set up as a server. This would, of course, require software with expanded capability.

3) Select software. This is a function of what you need to do. There are many choices out there, but the rule of thumb is this: simplest is best, unless you have a definite need to complicate things. Field units should have relatively simple software that is easy to learn and use.

4) Once you have determined your plans you can start to acquire equipment. When possible, you should look for the highest-possible performance units. If you have access to a 9600 bps user LAN, and can get a radio capable of operating there with good performance, it would be wise to think carefully about investing in this equipment. Remember, you wish to keep this equipment around for a long time. At some point, 1200 bps will be more of a historical mode than a common operating speed. Many TNC's can be upgraded with a 9600 bps modem, consider this as an alternative. How easy is it to install? I highly recommend a TNC that is truly TNC-2 compatible. Alternate firmware for these TNC's is available from various sources, and plugs right in. In the event that someone creates fancy new firmware capable of something really neat, you will find it is much easier to use this new firmware in a Paccomm Tiny-2 than a Kantronics KPC-3. The Paccomm is truly TNC-2 compatible. The KPC is not.

5) Provide for training. A lot of hams have not been exposed to packet radio, or tried it once many years ago. They may not be familiar with operating the equipment. Even if an operator can make the equipment play, they may not know how to get from point A to point B through the network. In addition to regular training, you should have a short "cheat sheet" to help jog the memory of an infrequent packet operator.

6) Once you have a system in place, designate a person to be in charge of the packet operations and maintenance. You will need someone to cycle the batteries in laptops, radios, and TNC's. This person can also keep operating systems up-to-date, along with keeping any instructions current (like the "cheat sheet" mentioned above).

7) Use packet in your exercises just like any other communications system. You probably already know that people get better at doing something when they practice. Make it a point to keep people in practice.

In the next installment, we will look at the specifics of planning a system.

On to Part 33 - Planning a packet system for Emergency Operations

Back to Part 31  - Using Packet Radio in Emergency Operations

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