15 July 2018

Ready, Fire, Aim

Amateur (ham) Radio has a problem. The number of active hams has been on a steady decline for at least 20 years. The ARRL knows it but continues to claim that the number of new hams - those who have passed their Technican exam - either rises or holds steady year-to-year so the picture is rosy, in an odd sort of way. No, what Amateur Radio has is a participation problem. The ARRL knows this and puts programs in-place to attract and retain new hams, things like satellites, digital modes, Moon bounce, Summits On the Air, EMCOMM and more. It's all good stuff - there's nothing really bad in Amateur Radio. But it just isn't working. The retention rate, based on my purely anecdotal evidence, can't be more than 20% at the most.

We've all heard the stories of why the millennial and post-millennials are not interested in ham radio - the internet, smartphones, the lack of immediate gratification, the perception that it's for old fuddy-duddies. There's a bit of truth in all of this; in the world of ubiquitous internet connectivity, instantaneous communications modes like Twitter and Snapchat, the 'there's an app for that' mentality and an always-on 24 hour news cycle very few kids today see the relevance of ham radio. Plus when a 16 year-old walks into a ham radio club meeting and sees that everyone else there is collecting Social Security you begin to understand their point.

This is why I think we're targeting the wrong group. The ARRL and other organizations shout that we've got to "get 'em while they're young". Why? It's impossible to compete for the post-millennial's attention and two decades of trying have shown it really doesn't work. Instead I say "get 'em when they're ready".

My feeling is that most kids today do not have the requisite maturity and life experience to understand just why Amateur Radio is important. We've spent too much time emphasizing the 'doing' and not enough time explaining the 'why'. Of course its fun to talk with another ham via an Amateur Radio satellite, but why is ham radio communication via satellite important? We recruit thousands of hams every year to support charity events like fundraising walks or bike rides, but we don't spend much time talking about why it's important we support them. Most clubs hold weekly nets, but we never stop to really discuss why it's important to participate.

Amateur Radio is all about communicating, and in many instances the why comes when the ham radio operator can put it all in perspective. The why is the 9/11 attacks taking out a single point of communications failure atop the World Trade Center, crippling regional communications for months. The why is Hurricane Katrina wiping southern Mississippi and much of Louisiana off the map as ham radio operators crouched on hospital rooftops trying desperately to reach out for assistance in a region without power or communications. The why is the captain of the replica sailing ship HMS Bounty, sinking in the raging ocean waters caused by Super Storm Sandy, contacting the Coast Guard using Winlink on an Amateur Radio frequency to report her last position, this after all other communications systems on the boat had failed. The why is Puerto Rico, flattened by Hurricane Irma and almost entirely dependent on Amateur Radio communications for health and welfare traffic for months after the storm.

To understand the why you must first have the life experience necessary to understand the impacts of each of these events to put them in perspective and understand the role Amateur Radio played. A post-millennial 16 or 17 year old does not have the necessary life experience.

But the Florida homeowner who's ridden out three hurricanes in one season does have the experience and perspective to understand why the ability to communicate is important. So does the Soldier who spent a year in Afghanistan running tactical communications nets supporting military convoys. So does the firefighter who relied on his Motorola handheld to call for assistance while fighting a wildfire. It's precisely these individuals Amateur Radio should be targeting, people who are old enough to understand the importance of communication and have the experience and perspective that allows them to intuitively understand why Amateur Radio is important.

Reaching out to kids is important if for no other reason than let them know that Amateur Radio exists and it's there for them if they have the interest. However, I feel the real target market needs to be generation-x crowd, those born in the 1970's and 80's. These folks have been around the block a few times and are better able to grasp the relevance of Amateur Radio in the real world. The good thing about this age demographic is that it's self-replenishing. Everybody grows older, gains life experience and is better able to put things in perspective. We need to adjust our aim to specifically target the 30 - 50 year old crowd. If we do I'm sure our recruiting and retention rates will improve. We certainly can't do any worse than we have in trying to keep the millennials on-board.

W8BYH out

07 July 2018

Got Batteries?

This afternoon, just out of curiosity, I decided to inventory my battery stash. One of my fears is being caught in an emergency without batteries. Irrational? Ever try to buy common battery types when a hurricane is approaching? Batteries are one of the first commodities to disappear in the panic buying just before a storm, any storm. People who live their lives in a mind-meld with their smartphones never seem to think about how they will power the things when the lights go out. I think most plan to just sit in their cars with the engine running so they can recharge their phone. Until the gas runs out.


I'm not saying you can recharge an iPhone 7 with a handful of AA cells. What I am getting at is that most folks don't plan for disasters. They just react as events unfold, and that reaction is usually fear - fear of being without. That's why you find folks who claim to live a gluten-free lifestyle snatching loaves of Wonder Bread off the store shelves right along with the guy that eats three PB&J sandwiches a day.

The same for batteries. A few years back, the day before an ice storm was scheduled to hit the Atlanta area, I watched a guy in the local Wal-Mart buy the last three 6-volt lantern batteries they had in stock. I asked him what he was planning to run with them and he told me he had no idea, he just wanted to make sure he had batteries - any batteries, I guess. Of course I was the one with two Coleman battery powered fluorescent lanterns that needed those batteries. It was at that moment I realized I needed to:

  1. Switch my battery powered devices such as radios and flashlights to models that used common battery types
  2. Make sure I always had enough batteries on hand to meet clearly planned out emergency power requirements
  3. Find the cheapest and most reliable source of quality batteries

One of the technological advancements of the last decade that made this feasible is the LED (light emitting diode). The LED has revolutionized the portable lighting industry. This means a two AA-cell LED flashlight can put out more light than an old 2 D-cell unit powering an incandescent bulb. The LED is also more energy efficient so batteries last longer and the quality of the light put out by an LED is much better - it's a cleaner, whiter light that does a much better job of penetrating the darkness.

LED technology has also made its way over to portable lanterns. When I got home after my Wal-Mart battery encounter I went on-line and ordered a Streamlight Siege LED lantern to test against my old Coleman fluorescent lanterns. It took about 10 minutes of testing to convince me that the LED lantern was the way to go. The Coleman lanterns got chucked in the trash that night (I didn't have batteries for them anyway) and I've been using the Streamlights ever since.

The Siege lantern comes in a 3 D-cell
or smaller 3 AA-cell version
So over the course of the last few years I've swapped virtually all of my emergency gear over to devices that take common batteries - all my flashlights, lanterns, AM/FM/Weather radios, even most of my handheld Amateur radios and one HF/VHF/UHF radio (Yaesu FT-817) is set up to run on AA or D-cells.

But what about devices like smartphones and tablets that don't take standard batteries? For those I've taken a different approach. Rather than try to keep various power sources on-hand for each type I just have a small bank of 12 volt 32 amp hour golf cart batteries I can hook up to a USB adapter. One of these batteries is capable of charging an iPad at least twice, and a smartphone perhaps half a dozen times before needing to be recharged itself. With several of these golf cart batteries on-hand I feel certain I can keep the phones and tablets running for several days or power other critical devices like higher power Amateur radios.

But do I have enough batteries? That answer requires planning for a likely emergency scenario over a clearly defined span of time. I plan for a weather related disaster of up to 72 hours in duration. If my local government can't get things back up and working even to minimal levels in 72 hours then I'm taking the bug-out option. So knowing all the devices I want to keep working for 72 hours - all my lights and radios - how many batteries do I need to keep on-hand to meet the minimum stockage requirement? I think the number will surprise you. I plugged it all into a spreadsheet and came up with 76 (seventy six!) AA-cells and 22 D-cells. This is the minimum number I need to keep on-hand in the event of a 'surprise' weather event. Think I'm being overly dramatic? Every week during spring and summer someone in the central US comes home from work and in the time it takes to prepare dinner their house is either destroyed or severely damaged by a tornado. It can and does happen on a regular basis. Just ask the folks who live in Tornado Alley. When a tornado is bearing down on your part of town it's a lousy time to run to the store to look for batteries.

Live anywhere near a colored square?
Mother Nature has a something in store for you.
Maybe not this week, or even this year, but soon...

Next, let's look at source. If the bunny on TV - the one with the drum - is to be believed the only good battery is the more expensive battery. The bunny sells a lot of batteries, but what he's banging his drum about isn't necessarily the truth. A number of studies have shown that generic alkaline batteries tend to last just as long in average consumer devices as the more expensive name brand versions. The term 'average consumer device' means things like radios, flashlights, game consoles, etc. There are valid reasons for going with more expensive batteries for high drain electronics like digital cameras, but then you are talking about moving away from alkaline and over to the far more expensive lithium technologies. For the types of devices I'm talking about powering, good old generic alkaline batteries are just fine, thanks. I've found the best source, and the easiest to deal with, is Amazon and their house brand Amazon Basics batteries. The Amazon Basics AA batteries sell for $0.23/cell when bought in quantities of 100 or more. Compare that to $0.40/cell for 100 of the bunny's batteries when bought from Amazon. The same economics apply for AAA-cells, D-cells and other sizes. Some folks bring up the bogey man of 'shelf life'; in fact, the bunny bases an entire ad campaign around the freshness of his (or her? I'm not sure) batteries. The truth is, common battery types like AA's get used for a lot of things around the average household - in clocks, remote controls, alarms, toys, musical devices, etc. Your battery stock will get rotated through regular usage. Just buy the cheaper generics, use 'em, and when your stockage level drops below your minimum, replace 'em.

So there you have it. When it comes to batteries my philosophy is you can never have enough but it's easy to have too little. If you are serious about preparing for likely disaster scenarios take a hard look at the emergency devices in your house and how you plan to use them, then calculate out the number of batteries you will need for a scenario that lasts 48 or 72 hours. That way you won't find yourself at Wal-Mart battling half the town for the last blister pack of the bunny's batteries.


04 July 2018

New Mobile Comms Suite

This week I updated the UHF/VHF comms suite in my CEV*, HQ-6. OK, it's actually my F-150 but hey, I can dream can't I?

The radios I've been using in my truck for the past two years were either an Icom 880H or an Icom ID-440. Both are very good radios but I wanted improved capabilities. I wanted the ability to do cross-band repeat from my truck, I wanted a larger screen that presented more information, I wanted dual receive and I also wanted D-STAR. That narrows the choice down to just one radio - the Icom ID-5100. I've been using the ID-5100 for the past 6 months in my shack and I've come to appreciate it as one of the best dual band mobile radios on the market today. So I sold off a few things (these days in my house ham radio must be a zero sum gain) and picked up a second ID-5100.

I also bit the bullet and bought a Ram X-grip mount for the radio head. If the F-150 has a drawback it's that the dashboard provides zero clean, smooth and level spaces for mounting accessories. Shame on you Ford. Not everything must be an exercise in eclectic styling and swoopy angles. It's a truck, fer' christ sake. The X-grip mount has a big suction cup that, so far, is sticking tenaciously to my windshield with the ID-5100 control head attached. I wouldn't take it off-roading, but for normal road travel it seems to work just fine.

The antenna remains the same old tried-and-true Comet SBB-5 on a mag mount stuck in the middle of the truck roof. I've used this antenna for more years than I can count on a variety of vehicles and recommend it highly. It's a single piece of stainless steel and it presents a reasonable SWR on both 2 meters and 70 centimeters. When you get it mounted it'll require a little tweaking with a tuner to get it optimized, but once you do that you can pretty much forget about it for the next decade or so. With the matching Comet mag mount base this antenna stays in place even when cruising at 85 mph up Interstate 75 (don't ask me how I know...).

One of the big things I like about the ID-5100 is how Icom implemented cross-band repeat. I've got other mobile units that can do cross-band, but getting to the cross band feature set requires some funky button pushing and a fair amount of biting your tongue. With the ID-5100 cross-band repeat is just a few taps away from the main screen and everything is clearly indicated on the display. Another great 'sneaky-pete' feature of the ID-5100 is that once you have all the settings in place you can disconnect the remote head and hide it away in your vehicle - the base unit will continue to operate. So I can be roaming a local park with a low power UHF hand-held and work my local VHF repeater on cross-band repeat with the radio completely hidden from view.

Cross-band repeat using a small UHF handheld
 is a great tool for mobile work

But it's not just cross-band repeat and D-STAR that make this radio great. As I type this I'm listening live to the Atlanta Radio Club radio traffic supporting the annual Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta. The repeater, W4DOC, is located in downtown Atlanta is right on the edge of my ability to receive signals from its location. Although race radio traffic is barely registering 1 or 2 bars on the ID-5100, received audio is excellent. If I didn't know better based on the radio's display I'd say I was hearing net control at full strength and full quieting. The receiver in this radio is outstanding.

So the UHF/VHF comms upgrade is done. What's next? Maybe a prefabricated HF operating position for the back of the truck. But first, I gotta' go get the ribs done for the 4th of July dinner.

W8BYH out

*Combat Engineer Vehicle (CEV) - I used to be a combat engineer. The CEV was a true 'MacGyver' piece of gear used by combat engineer units in the US Army. It was a 'do-all' vehicle based on the M60 tank that sported plow, a crane and a 165mm demolition gun. In short, the perfect commuting vehicle for Atlanta traffic. Sadly, my wife won't let me have one, so I have to make do.