Field Day 2011

This year I didn’t make it to any of our local field day sites as I did last year, but that’s not to say I didn’t see the sites! Just like last year I went ahead and grabbed my plane and did a short flight over some of the field day locations.

This year I was aware of three separate locations, one at the top of Bonny Doon at the CAL FIRE base, one at Dimeo Lane off of Highway 1, and one at UCSC. So below are some of the images from that flight:

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Using Twitter for ARES Alerts & Announcements

As amateur radio operators we embrace radio as a mode of communication that continues working when many other methods may fail. Telephone lines may go dead, the power goes out, and computer networks cease to operate, yet radio waves continue moving at the speed of light. Well prepared and trained operators, along with their equipment, stand at the ready when other methods fail.

However, not all communications emergencies look exactly the same, and as skilled communicators it is always good to have as many tools available to us as possible to deal with the various types of situations we may face.  The focus of this article is to talk about one piece of that communications puzzle: notifying your club or ARES group members that their services are needed.

There are certain types of emergencies that everyone in the community would know about right away: an earthquake, a tornado, a wildland fire, or similar event. But there are other types of emergencies where radio operators are needed but that aren’t quite so obvious. What if the land line phone system goes down at a local hospital or county facility? Or if a shelter could use radio operators for a localized incident. How do you quickly spread the word to your radio volunteers that their services could be utilized?

Ideally of course you would just put a call out on the local repeater and an abundance of operators would instantly appear ready to operate. But we all know not everyone can monitor their radio 24/7. So the next step traditionally taken is the phone tree. Someone gets out a list and starts dialing phone numbers one at a time. There are some computer aided systems to ease this phone tree process, and several of those charge fees for use or limit the available hours to send an alert.

Amateur radio operators have always taken advantage of new technology when it makes sense in filling a need. Examples of this most recently would include digital operating modes, Echolink and IRLP. One of these tools that might be useful for some groups would be the use of Twitter for rapidly sending out club, group or ARES alerts or announcements. Anyone who has a cell phone that can send and receive text messages can easily enable these alerts to show up on their phones, no smartphone or complicated setup required!  The next two portions of this article will describe how to set up a Twitter account for your club or group, and the second part will be how a club member would set up receiving those alerts.

Creating a Twitter Notification Account For Your ARES group
One option to reduce the number of phone calls you have to make as a part of your phone tree notifications to your ARES group members would be setting up a Twitter notification account. Setting up a new Twitter account takes just a few minutes, and for your members to sign up to receive updates is even faster.

To set up a new account visit http://twitter.com and look for the “Sign Up” button on the right side. For the name, put the name of your ARES group or club. For the username, think carefully about this one as it will be in your URL address, and you won’t want to change it later.

For the Santa Cruz California ARES group I chose a naming scheme of “ares_xcz” with the plan that if multiple ARES groups were listed they would be shown together alphabetically. Then I used a three letter county abbreviation. I created the main account, http://twitter.com/ares_xcz, for official ARES activations and alerts.

Next choose a password, I would create a strong password that you might share with just a few people in your group so they could post the alert if you were unavailable.  Board members or the club president would be some examples of who you might grant posting access to.

Next put in an email address (your own, or a club email address) that gets monitored regularly. Answer the other simple questions asked and click the “Create my account” button. You can then customize your page if you choose, add your organization logo, and write a description of the group with a link to your website for more information.

To post a “Tweet” or an alert to your group, simply type the text in the “What’s happening?” box at the top and hit the “Tweet” button. Remember, Tweets are limited to 140 characters so they are easy to read on cellular phones via SMS, so keep it short. Your tweet is available to anyone who looks at your Twitter account or uses the search feature. A common method is to post the short alert message with a link to additional information.  For our group I also created a second Twitter account for more general news and non-priority information like meeting reminders and announcements: http://twitter.com/ares_xcz_news.

Signing Up To Receive Twitter Alerts
For your group members to receive alerts whenever your organization posts a message is easy. From their mobile phone they would simply create a new text message. In the “To” field of the message is where you typically put the cellular phone number of who you want to send the message to, but in this case, Twitter’s number is 40404, so place that in the “To” field of the message.

In the message portion, simply write the word “follow” and the name of the Twitter account for your organization.  As an example, to follow all alerts for the Santa Cruz California ARES group, the message would be “follow ares_xcz”. Send that message and Twitter will reply with a few very basic instructions. The next time the organization posts a tweet, your phone will receive a text message within seconds.  If you ever want to turn off these updates, simply send a text message of “leave ares_xcz” to 40404 and it will turn the notifications off.

There are a lot of other features of Twitter, through the website you can read the tweets online, search past tweets, locate additional people, ham radio operators or organizations to follow, and more. If you want to get started to see how some amateur radio operators are using Twitter, check out http://hamtwits.com.

2010 Amateur Radio Field Day

Out of all the years I’ve been involved in amateur radio, and all of the years I was interested but not licensed, I’d always heard about Field Day, but until this year had never actually attended.  Most years I had weddings I was photographing, or other schedule conflicts that prevented me from joining in, but this year worked out perfectly.

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I took Daria with me (7-months old) and she did very well the whole time we were there. We toured around a little, saw the various stations operating and shared some conversation in the shade. I think what caught my attention most was the satellite station, but I didn’t stick around long enough to really watch them try to make any contacts.

Things that I really wish could change at the event was our power sources… we’re in a field of very dry grass, and behind each tent or trailer is a noisy gas powered generator. It’s true that I wasn’t operating myself, and I don’t know the true power requirements of the individual stations, but I would sure love to see more solar and battery power running at future field days. Sure would be more enjoyable without the constant drone of those little generators… not to mention the fire danger!

Following our visit to the site, I headed down the hill, was able to drop Daria off at home, then headed for the airport to get a few aerial shots.  On my way to the Bonny Doon field day site, I made radio contact with some of the radio operators working the Banana Slug Trail Trials at the Graham Hill Showgrounds and surrounding area. Then I made radio contact and was logged by our field day station.  I headed down to the station set up at UCSC on their field, shot some aerials of their location but was unable to make radio contact.  While trying, K6LY in Monterey caught me and logged me as a contact from the plane as well.

Additional images can be found by visiting my 2010 Field Day Gallery on Flickr.

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Santa Cruz County Hospital Evacuation Drill

This morning in Santa Cruz, there is a county wide hospital evacuation drill taking place. To monitor the drill, listen in on the K6BJ repeater at 146.790- PL 94.8 from 8:30 am – 11:30 am.

Reprint from the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

SANTA CRUZ: Hospitals to stage evacuation drill

The Santa Cruz County Public Health Department will stage an evacuation drill involving Dominican Hospital, Watsonville Community Hospital and Sutter Maternity and Surgery Center on Wednesday.

“Operation Holy Smoke” will take place 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. The drill is designed to test the ability of the community to respond to one hospital’s need to evacuate patients and move them to a different facility.

No actual patients will be moved, but the exercise will examine communications and coordination activities related to a full hospital evacuation. The exercise, funded by a grant, fulfills accreditation requirements for the hospitals.

Other participants include the Emergency Operations Center, the Medical Reserve Corps, the Amateur Radio Emergency Services, the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, San Benito County, San Mateo County and law enforcement and fire agencies from Santa Cruz and Capitola.

Complexity in setting up APRS iGates… necessary?

Pardon my complaining attitude in this post, but maybe there are good reasons. So the basic story is some of us use APRS transmitters to track our location as we move around (be it hiking, biking, sailing, in the car or in a plane). For some of us, our goal is to be picked up by the mapping services online so other people can see our track or present location on a map.

The path for that position date typically is from our APRS transmitter, over the air to a digipeater or two that repeat the signal until it his something known as an iGate. Basically an iGate at it’ simplest is set up as:

* A receiving radio (any scanner or ham radio will do)
* A computer with a sound card
* Software that receives the sound from the radio and converts it to aprs text
* Software that takes the text of the APRS stream, filters it, and send it to the APRS-IS stream on the internet

Once your data makes it to the internet stream, it can be mapped, archived, or used however you like. The problem is, a lot of APRS packets are lost before they ever reach the internet, there are simply not enough iGates in some areas to pick up the packets. With that being the problem, I wanted to build up a simple iGate and be able to gate local packets down in the valleys in which I live out to the internet. Should be easy… I’ve got computers with sound cards, I’ve got radios and scanners… but then it comes to the software.

Almost every time I have gone looking for good software to use it turns in to a crazy story of needing to install linux, install Windows XP, read a mountain of documentation, chat on forums for days attempting to work out the configuration files, etc. I wonder why it has to be so difficult?

Has there ever been on off the shelf self-contained hardware APRS iGate with a web interface for configuration? Would their be a demand for it?

It seems to me it shouldn’t have to be that difficult…

* A radio receiver
* A TNC
* A webserver to run the iGate software (Ruby?) and allow configuration
* The iGate software to filter dupes, run user defined rules, and send it to APRS-IS
* An ethernet or WiFi network interface to give it internet access.

What might it look like? I’d envision something like the SheevaPlug computer with an audio line in jack, or a USB TNC.

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Or perhaps it would be built from even smaller component elements:

* Gumstix Motherboard with Wifi or Ethernet
* A tunable radio receiver and TNC similar to the Micro-Trak products, doesn’t need to be a transceiver unless you wanted to build in traditional digipeater functionality

How would it all work? You’d receive the device, power it on, connect to it via the internet, put in your callsign, and by default, it would start gating received packets on 144.39 to the internet. Done.

For more advanced features, you’d simply pull up the configuration file that would have various user defined settings, each with a good description of the possible settings and how they work. (Filter out specific types of packets, change the receive frequency, setting the iGate’s lat/long position, changing the APRS-IS server locations, etc.

Perhaps the existing systems are good enough, but it just seems like there should be some “plug-and-play” style iGates out there to encourage people to set them up so our packets could get received in more locations.

Mac OS X Problems & Solutions: No Route to Host

Though not radio related, I wanted to share this recent discovery of mine since the solution took me a bit of work to discover, and I hope this might help others stuck in the same situation.

One of my laptops recently was unable to access specific URL’s of a very few sites. I believe my desktop machine previously had the same problem but with different URL’s.

I would type in the URL of the page and it would fail to access it, tried it in Firefox and in Safari with the same result… no page loading.

Next I tried to ping the URL and ended up with:

ping: sendto: No Route to host

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I did a bunch of forum searching and wasn’t able to find much (people recommended flushing the DNS cache with:

dscacheutil -flushcache

Which I tried and had no luck. I also checked my .hosts file and there was nothing related there. So I searched again tonight and found the solution in several posts!

The problem was an application called PeerGuardian which is an utility that is often used when people download Torrents. What it does is block ranges of IP addresses that are thought to be “bad” ranges in terms of Torrents. I won’t go in to the details of why people use it, but once it’s been used, even when the application is not running, some of it’s filters remain in place preventing access to websites on it’s block list.

To remedy the situation, I launched PeerGuardian, selected the “File” drop-down menu, then chose “Disable Filters” and instantly my access to those websites was restored. Hope that helps anyone else having the same problem!

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Communications Emergency: April 9, 2009

For those interested in hearing about the Santa Cruz ARES Ham Radio response to this week’s communications outage in Santa Cruz, San Benito and Santa Cruz Counties. The cause of the outage were multiple cuts in the Fiber Optic cables which ended up shutting down almost all land line telephone, cellular and internet connections in most areas of the three counties listed above. This brought down our 911 dispatch system, hospital to hospital communications, ATM and Credit Card transactions. Comcast was the only provider I’m aware of who’s telephone, cable TV and internet stayed up throughout the event.

I noticed I had no cellular phone service around 0645 hours local, but still had internet (wifi via Comcast) so figured it was a local problem. Around 0745 hours Ellen got ahold of me via our Comcast landline as she was just finishing her shift at the hospital and let me know it was county wide. I turned on the radios and checked in to the Resource Net letting them know I would be available after 1000 hours. I monitored both nets as I drove to Watsonville to meet her.

When Ellen and I had finished up our first baby appointment in Watsonville (Yay! Babies!! She was 6 & 2/7ths weeks on Thursday we learned from our first ultrasound.) I went back home with her, packed my gear, and checked back in to the Resource Net at 1030 hours. Went to the office, set up a quick antenna outside and brought my radio in to the office figuring it might be hours before I was needed. About five minutes later they called me up and requested me at Sutter Maternity and Surgery Center.

I was at Sutter from approximately 1130-1645 hours and was quickly joined by two other volunteers: Kent, AB6KB, and later Barry, KI6QWQ. Mostly we monitored the events going on between the other served agencies and gave information to hospital staff. We were able to pass their large food order via radio to Monterey, where they still had phone service and they relayed the order to the vendor. We were preparing to place an order for their pharmacy as well but they were able to place that via another method.

My primary setup was my Yaesu FT-817nd with the antenna lead heading out a propped open door, I raised my 20′ fiberglass Jackite pole with my Larsen antenna that I usually use mag mounted on my car up on top of it. I also used my Kenwood TH-F6A for monitoring other frequencies (police, fire, and news media). My 5 watts hit all of the necessary repeaters with no problem, if I’d needed more power I had my 35-watt Mirage amplifier and a DieHard Portable Power 750 12-volt power source in the car.

The event taught me a lot about what pack in my “Go Kit” and that I really do need to build up a better collection of things that are ready to go on a shorter notice… I spent time around the house taking down an antenna, gathering antenna cable, extension cords, my battery backup, my antenna mast and mount, etc. I should really have a kit ready to go, even if it requires me to purchase a few duplicate items (antenna cable ready to go instead climbing through my attic taking down my current setup for example)

Here is a summary provided to the Santa Cruz ARES mailing list by Cap Pennell, KE6AFE:
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Yaesu FT-817ND with MacMemoriesManager

I had been playing with my Yaesu FT-817ND for a while, but not really using it very much on VHF/UHF, primarily because I hadn’t programmed very many of the local repeaters in to it.  As with any radio, I really dislike programming a lot of memories in to them via their on device programming methods (tiny buttons, little knobs, one digit at a time, etc)

On my Mac, for my Kenwood radios I have been a very happy customer of MacMemoriesManager for a number of years. “What?” you say? A Mac?  I thought this guys was a ham radio operator?  We all know Hams use Windows (preferrably 3.1 or 98 right?) or Linux!

Well, the Macintosh platform is continuing (althought slowly) to grow for amateur radio, I really thank those Mac developers, I know they would sell more software if they sold to the larger community, but with the high quality designs Apple has been putting out over the last few years, more and more hams will be switching, especially as quality software is available for them.

Okay, enough of me praising Apple, back to what I was talking about.  So I wanted to start programming frequencies to the FT-817, so I headed over to eBay and found a USB data  cable for it from 409Shop.com who goes by the name RadioFactory on eBay.

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I received the cable and a small cd with drivers on it. I never opened the driver CD as I’m sure it was Windows only, and those tiny cd’s won’t work safely in slot loading cd players I don’t think. Didn’t need it anyways, I already had my USB driver installed since I use similar cables for my Kenwood radios.

These cables use the pl2303 Serial to USB chip, and that led me to the SourceForge project: PL2303 USB to Serial Driver for Mac OS X. I have noticed that Apple has a link to that same SourceForge project as well.

So I connected up the radio and the cable and fired up MacMemoriesManager… and nothing happened. I’ve been consistantly frustrated by the 817 since it seems so foriegn to the way the Kenwoods work… somehow the Kenwoods just make more sense to me. As I use the 817 more I’m sure I will get used to it.  But here were the major hurdles I was experiencing while trying to load memories:

First, it kept saying the radio couldn’t be found. Aparently the radio has to be in VFO mode, not memory mode to be programmed.

Second, I got it to connect, but only about one in five of the memory channels would get programmed successfully, garbage data was being written to the file, sounded like a baud rate issue.  I reduced the baud rate to 4800 in MacMemoriesManager, and also reduced the rate on the radio and data started flowing perfectly!

To change the baud rate on the radio, turn the radio on, push and hold the “F” key, navigate to menu item 14 using the SEL knob, then choose 4800 for the rate, then push “F” again to get back to your regular modes.

One of the things I really like about using MacMemoriesManager is that since I already had all of my frequencies programmed for the Kenwoods, I was able to open up that memory file, switch the radio to use in the software, and then send those frequencies right back in to the 817 so frequencies can match across all three of my radios and I never had to type them back in again.

Only downside was… the 817 doesn’t receive 220 MHz, and won’t receive the fire department frequencies I use most often, so I had to delete all of the frequencies from the memories that were outside the receiving range of the 817. A wider band receive sure would have been nice for this, I guess I’m just spoiled by my Kenwood TH-F6A!

Learning Morse Code

It probably started when I was around 7-10 years old… I had a neighbor who lived down the street and our cheap walkie-talkies just couldn’t reach but we devised the plan that if we could just learn morse code we could use our flashlights to communicate.  The only problem was… learning morse code!

My desire to learn it died down until around High School when I first started learning about amateur radio from my electronics teacher Dan White (KB6TDW, silent key) and first started studying for my Technician when it went to no code.  I studied for a while but never took the test and didn’t come back to amateur radio until 2006 when I finally studied, passed the test and got my Technician.  But the desire to still learn code was still there.

I wanted to mention here a few of the tools and applications that have been helpful to me as I worked on learning code. Obviously some of these are quite old and I doubt many of you are running Palm anymore, but they were a part of my journey along the way.

PilotMorse: [Windows] The primary application that taught me the letters. I just wish it had adjustable speed.

Smart Morse: [Palm] Used it to practice learning the letters.

Morse-it: [iPhone] Allows you to practice receiving, or sending via tapping.

There are a lot of guides online about learning code, and though I have all the numbers and letters down, I still don’t feel confident that I “know” morse code since I haven’t worked hard on receiving audio and writing it down… I spent a lot of my time learning by sending via Morse-it… figure if I can learn to send I can probably pick up receiving quickly.

My one tip would be to NOT learn by memorizing each letter individually, and don’t learn the code at a slow speed.  Tune up your tutoring application to have it send the letters quickly, even if there are large time spaces between the letters so you can write them down.  But I keep hearing that if you learn the letters really slow, or by having to do a mental lookup of each letter as you hear it, you’ll be stuck in the 5-10 words per minute range and never be able to progress higher.  I think a goal for me would be in the 15-20 words per minute range, but alas, I have no radio to send or receive code on the HF bands, so I don’t even know what the “real world” code speeds are to be useful.

I still have a lot more work to do in geting my sending and receiving speed faster. Since I got my Yaesu FT-817ND for Christmas I’ve been monitoring more HF and finally being able to hear real-world morse code in use.  I’ve been “cheating” quite a bit by using the free Mac OS X application CocoaModem to decode the code for me. I’ve been using that application for decoding PSK, so I pretty much have it running all the time anyways.  I still think I have a goal of 15-17 wpm of sending and receiving without the aid of a computer… we’ll see what happens from there :-)  Practicing with my DinKey has been a huge help and allows me to send much faster.