13 March 2024

Thinking Outside The Box

Pet peeve time.

Ham radio is in love with the go-box. You can't attend a hamfest or club meeting without seeing presentations on, or hearing discussions about, go-boxes; what goes in them, how they are built, how to power them, how to connect to them, etc. Suffice to say, ham radio is go-box batty. Proof? Just Google 'ham radio go box'. 

The go-box concept is good, but it can be limiting in both capabilities and scope. Just the mindset that all your capability has to fit into a single box, and if it doesn't fit, then you don't need it, is a silly way to approach a problem. 

I haven't seen too many go-boxes that were built to meet a specific mission or requirement. For example, I once asked a person demonstrating his go-box why he included a VHF packet modem. He admitted there wasn't a clear need for it - it was there 'just in case'. This in a region that hasn't seen any public service related packet activity for over 15 years.

I don't want to disparage the concept of the go-box, but the 'box' mentality and the lack of a requirements-based approach seems to lead to a lot of implementations that look like solutions in search of a problem.

Let's think beyond the go-box and instead think about the concept of a mission-focused communications hub or, as we used to call them in the Army, a 'comms center'. A comms center is just a place - a table, a room, a shelter, a tent. Heck, it can be the tailgate of a pickup truck. But it is the place at which you build out a communications hub in support of an event or incident, and build it out tailored to the mission requirements.

A comm center can be anywhere, even in a sandbagged bunker

I use the term 'mission focus' a lot, and it really is the key to the comms center concept. You build capability to meet a specified mission. Let's use a county-level ARES group as an example. Do a mission analysis and ask yourself (and your EMA) these questions: 

  • What are your served agencies? 
  • What are the missions of these served agencies? 
  • What communications capabilities do they need to meet their missions? 
  • What are their organic communications capabilities?  
  • What are they lacking? 
The answer to 'What are they lacking?' is what should drive your mission focus. Once you identify and understand that gap, and build capabilities to close it, you are on the path to establishing a formal comms center.

The comms center concept is also fluid. In the Army, I've been in situations where the comms center started out as just a single VHF radio mounted in a truck, a map board and a message log. Over time it morphed into a dedicated shelter with multi-channel voice and digital HF and VHF capabilities, a landline switchboard and a SATCOM link. What all this gear wasn't, was stuffed into a single box. That was impractical and unwieldly; each communications system required more elbow room than a boxed enclosure could offer.

Far-fetched for a civilian operation? Not at all. With growing reliance on systems like Winlink and other HF-based digital tools like JS8CALL, Fldigi, VarAC, and use of internet-linked VHF voice and data modes like DSTAR, C4FM, DMR and Echolink, the technology stack in a civilian comms center can easily match that found in military units. And let's not forget the vulnerability of terrestrial-based internet. There's a reason a Starlink package is a standard part of many civilian communications centers.

But a comms center isn't really about comms equipment. The job of the comms center is moving information, and the synchronization of communications across systems, agencies and departments. With this in mind, a comms center's key functions include:

  • Establishing and maintaining communications support as directed by the event director, incident commander or incident communications leader
  • Maintaining the event/incident radio log
  • Conducting an overall 'radio watch'; ensuring all comms systems are up, operating and proactively monitored
  • Interfacing communications systems. For example, establishing radio-wire interfaces, making sure information received via radio is 'hopped' to the appropriate systems like WebEOC, internal chat systems, status boards, etc.
  • On-boarding new personnel, departments or agencies that show up to support the incident, making sure their organic communications systems are integrated into the communications architecture
  • Radio set-up and programming
  • Troubleshooting communications issues
So... while a go-box can serve as a component of a comms center, it should never be considered an all-encompassing solution. For this reason I'm not a big fan of the 'box' solution. It seems to impose conceptual restrictions, trying to force the mission requirements to fit the box, not the other way around.

So let's stop focusing on go-boxes and instead focus on flexible, mission focused comms centers. Start thinking outside the box.

W8BYH out

No comments:

Post a Comment