01 November 2020

The Football

 "Drop kick me Jesus through the goal post of life"

Today's post is inspired not by football the game, but by football the metaphor. The 'nuclear football' is the metaphor for the rugged computer that is always within a few dozen feet of the President. You know, the laptop that holds the nuclear launch codes that will trigger mutually assured destruction. 

No, this is not the real nuclear football. In fact, nobody really knows what it looks like on the inside.
But hey, it's a cool concept!

The nuclear football is really a large briefcase that holds the computer, some communications equipment and documents. And maybe a bag lunch for the guy who got stuck with football duty for the day. They used to be aluminum Halliburton cases with a leather outer cover, but who knows what they use today.

The US nuclear football is really a large briefcase that contains (we imagine) a computer,
some communications equipment, documents and 
maybe even a secret decoder ring!

In EMCOMM we spend a lot of time talking about the radios we plan on bringing to the next disaster. Occasionally we'll talk about antennas and power. We almost never talk about computers. But if you are serious about emergency communications, I make the argument that you need an EMCOMM version of 'the football' - a rugged portable computer, documents and supporting hardware that holds all the necessary software and files you need to get the job done.

I've been thinking about and prototyping this concept for a few months now, and I'm pretty close to my vision of an EMCOMM football. Let me start the discussion with hardware. In my day job I manage a fleet of mobile computers - laptops and tablets. I've been in this business on and off for decades, and I've developed a very mercenary view of computer hardware. To me computers are like toasters - I develop no sentimental attachments (although I do have favorites), and when one doesn't meet the need or stops working I just toss it and get another. In my discussions with others on the topic of EMCOMM dedicated computers there seems to be two schools of thought. The first is buy cheap and toss when it breaks (which would be often). The second is to buy high end and make it last. For EMCOMM use I fall into the buy high category. The EMCOMM computer needs to be as failsafe as possible. The worst time for a computer failure is when trying to send 'safe and well' messages via Winlink during a huricane. Wal-Mart will be closed (or looted), so you can't run there for a replacement, and you wouldn't be able to load up your software anyway. So this doesn't just mean good build quality, it means a high level of survivability under a variety of conditons - heat, high humidity, freezing temperatures, rain, dust. We're talking ruggedized computer territory here. 

However, ruggedized lapops that meet a defined spec like MIL-STD-810G are not cheap. In fact, for the hardware specs they offer, they are eye bleedingly expensive. The kind of thing only a free spending money-is-no-object government agency would buy. New. In bulk. 

But we underlings get to take advangage of Big Gov's leavings. You see, unlike the run-of-the-mill Dell or HP laptops that get destroyed in daily use, a large percentage of these hardened laptops survive their tours of duty in police cruisers, ambulances, fire trucks, utility service trucks, etc. in good servicable condition. They may look like hell on the outside, but they still work fine on the inside. This means a lot of them turn up on the secondary market, selling for pennies on the dollar compared to new models. Now, even at pennies on the dollar the are not cheap, but they are a lot more reasonable, and ideally suited to EMCOMM use.

I've used Panasonic Toughbooks, Dell Tough Rugged laptops and specialized rugged tablets, and they all work great in this application. But I've settled on Panasonic Toughbooks mainly because there's so many used ones out there. It's fairly easy to find one with the features you want at a reasonable price. My personal favorite is the Panasonic CF-31. This model hits the sweet spot - a full sized back-lit keyboard, plenty of USB ports, an HDMI port and a traditional 9-pin serial port. This model still has the goofy square(ish) screen aspect ratio that can make some applications and websites look odd, but that's ususally a minor annoyance. Most refurbished Toughbooks come with traditional hard drives. The first thing I do is yank those out and install a solid state drive. The only other hardware change I may make is additional RAM (to get up to 16 gig) and installation of a CD/DVD drive. I also try to have at least one fully charged spare battery available.

My EMCOMM football computer driving a Yaesu FT-991A during the
2020 ARES Simulated Emergency Test

As far as operating systems go, I've made my feelings known in a previous post. Until Winlink is ported over to Linux (which may actually happen soon), an EMCOMM operator is better off sticking with Windows 10.

Most rugged laptops are not screamers when it comes to computing performance.
But these are not gaming machines. These are specifically designed to provide 'good enough'
computing performance and high survivability in extreme conditions

What about application software? This is where the football concept matures out. Think of the use case for this computer - off grid, austere environment. This means no internet. So, no web-based office applications like Google Docs or Microsoft's equivalent. No access to cloud drives. No access to websites like VOACAP or PSKReporter. No access to software updates. EVERYTHING you are going to possibly need has to be loaded on the laptop, updated and ready-to-go. 

So for our purposes, the football software suite needs to include:

  • Winlink
  • Fldigi
  • A stand-alone office automation suite like OpenOffice, LibreOffice or Microsoft Office (I recommend LibreOffice - it's free, very stable and well supported)
  • The stand alone version of VOACAP or HAMCAP for propagation prediction
Additional software to consider based on your specific operating and support requirements:
  • JS8Call (weak signal chat and messaging)
  • D-RATS (for message handling and chat over D-STAR)
  • A packet radio management suite like Outpost (useful if you want to 'sniff' AX.25 packet data or manage a temporary digipeater)
  • Are you a MARS operator? Then all the required MARS digital suite software AND supporting files and documents
  • Radio programming software and current programming files - CHIRP, RT Systems, etc. Think about it - if you have to do a factory reset on your D-STAR radio are you going to want to hand-jam all the settings back in?
  • Rig control software/contesting software like Ham Radio Deluxe (HRD). The rig control interfaces in these packages can make operating the radio easier. 
  • Net control management software like NetLogger
Remember, no internet access! So that means you'll need digital or physical copies of key documents included as part of your football:
Next to consider is supporting hardware:
  • Battery charger and cords. I've been to more than one exercise where someone shows up with a dead laptop and no charger, and nobody has compatible charger (if you show up with a Panasonic and everyone else is using Dells, well...). Remember, a dead laptop is useless
  • Additional fully charged laptop battery. Again, a dead laptop is useless
  • GPS receiver. For some digital modes, like JS8Call, time synchronization is important. With no access to the internet your laptop can't synchronize the internal system clock with a network time server. Internal computer clocks can be 'drifty'; they are not precision instruments and rely on checking regularly with a network time server for adjustments. With an inexpensive GPS receiver like the U-blox7 dongle and appropriate software you'll be able to update your laptop system clock using GPS time signals

USB GPS dongle - $15 on Amazon

  • Computer mouse. Just makes the laptop a bit easier to live with
  • USB thumb drive and SD card. Remember, no internet, no email (I know, I know, dead horse...). How do you move files between computers? By having a spare tumb drive and SD card (or two) you are assured you can transfer data in an austere environment
  • DVD/CD ROM drive. Don't underestimate the ability of government agencies to cling desperately to old data formats. There are boxes of DVDs and CDs holding legacy data squirrled away in EOCs and government offices from sea to shining sea. That one odd report format the EMA needs may only be available on a DVD that was burned a decade ago and found sitting in the CD tray of a dead Gateway desktop that was headed to the dumpster. Don't ask me how I know. Be the hero. Have the only working DVD drive in the EOC
  • Cables, cables, cables. Have a cable for everything, and for critical pieces of gear, have two cables. 
    • USB cables for everything you run. Not just the old school USB A to B, still so common in Amateur Radios today, but also USB mini, micro and USB C.
    • An HDMI cable for attaching your laptop to an external monitor. If you use a Panasonic CF-19 laptop you'll need a powered VGA-to-HDMI adapter
    • Specialty cables for things like TNCs, CAT control cables for older radios, audio interface cables if you connect directly to the computer soundcard
    • Still running old DB9 serial devices (like some older TNCs)? Don't forget cables for those. Also consider a DB9-to-USB adapter
  • A bag to carry it all in. Forget the metrosexual murse that seems so popular in today's computer tote-wear. It may be fine for a MacBook Air, with enough leftover room for a Starbuck's gift card, but you are going to need a roomy and tough shoulder bag or backpack to haul all this stuff around in. Or even better, a hardened case like a Pelican
Now it's time to talk about user accounts. You are the administrator on your laptop, but you shouldn't let anyone use it while logged in as admin. Instead, create a guest user account (easy to do in Windows 10) that keeps the curious away from your system settings. That way, if you have to leave the laptop in the hands of someone else while you go get a few hours of sleep you won't come back to find your hard drive loaded up with malware and half your applications re-configured.

Be sure to tag everything that's your property, and record serial numbers. A fully operational EOC is a hectic place, and things tend to move around a lot (and disappear). I recommend using your callsign to tag your gear. It makes the item uniquely yours, yet doesn't specifically identify you by name. Plus, it lets the served agency know that it's a piece of Amateur Radio gear that shouldn't be messed with. I hate to have to say it, but if your laptop has a security cable slot (like the ones compatable with the Kensington cable system) I recommend you lock it down to the desk you are set up on. 

Be a Boy Scout. Be prepared - for any data exchange format

Next, power. In an ideal disaster response situation (if there were such a thing), clean commercial power would be readily available from the moment you show up. But we all know that's not going to happen. So, show up with a fully charged battery and, if possible, have fully charged spares. I think a reasonable expectation is that you should get 6 hours of continuous use out of a single battery before you have to swap in a fresh battery or go looking for a charging station. Not all of my Toughbooks have spare batteries, so I bring along a 'power pack' - a 30 amp hour lithium-ion battery connected to a sine wave inverter. What's neat about this power pack setup is that I can power the laptop while simultaneously charging the battery using a 100 watt solar panel.

Have spares

Last, internet. Earlier in this post I focused on last-ditch grid down operations, and I counseled that web services will not be available and you need to be prepared and equipped to operate within that scenario. But we all have to admit that life is better with bandwidth. If internet connectivity is available, use it! It allows you to do things like run Winlink telnet sessions, grab software updates, connect to key commercial services like Weather.com, PSK Reporter, APRS.fi, etc., check personal email, and upload images and documents that can't be moved via Winlink (hint - use the concept of shared photo and document folders using services like Google Drive, DropBox or Microsoft OneDrive, and just share the folder or individual document links). 

There are several related issues to be aware of. First, the agency you show up to support may be so anal regarding computer security that they won't allow your laptop on their network. I actually understand and sympathize with this policy, and you should be prepared for this as the norm. But the supported agency's IT team may also not have any provisions for 'guest' or public wi-fi access, particularly if they are running on a very thin bandwidth string. Parallel to this, the cell service providers have done great work over the past decade in hardening their own infrastructure, and it's common for cell and data services to still be available when all else has failed. Consider supplying your own bandwidth. Many service providers offer cheap unlimited data plans, or even cheaper plans with very generous data caps. Your phone can act as a very effective personal hotspot that can get you on the internet when and where you need it.
The guts of the EMCOMM 'football'

So there you have it. The Amateur Radio EMCOMM Football. Of course this package will vary depending on your needs, supported agency and the current state of technology. Will the football concept look the same in five years when things like wi-fi enabled radios and embedded IOT functionality becomes more prevalent? No, of course not. But for today and into the forseeable future, the concept I lay out here is based on extensive real-world experience and is, I believe, very sound.

All packed up and ready to go

W8BYH out

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