The Western PA (WPA) Section Spring Simulated Emergency Test (SET) was held this morning from 9 AM until 12:30 PM EDT (1300-1630 UTC). I was an active participant serving as an official relay station.
The purpose of the SET was to find out the strengths and weaknesses in providing emergency communications. It also provided a public demonstration of the value to the public that amateur radio provides, particularly in time of need. It also helped radio amateurs to gain experience in communications using standard procedures and a variety of modes under simulated emergency conditions.
The emergency test scenario was as follows: freezing rain and dense fog made for hazardous road conditions. A train hit a tractor trader containing hazardous materials of unknown composition and several rail cars derailed. Local utilities were affected and power lines were arcing in the area. People are also experiencing eye and throat irritation. National Weather Service Skywarn and American Red Cross were activated.
The amateur radio propagation today was generally poor. However, radio messages were successfully handled. I was asked to monitor the 60-meter band but there was nothing but noise. I regularly checked into the WinLink digital stations WIAW and W6IDS. The latter had a significantly better signal on the 40-meter band. I also checked in with a local 2-meter station to pass messages (traffic), and into a voice net on the 75-meter band.
At end of the exercise, I had originated one message, sent 3, received 2, and delivered 1 for a total of 7 messages handled.
This week, my amateur radio station became an official digital traffic network (DTN) station. The main operating digital mode is PACTOR, an evolution of both AMTOR and packet radio. PACTOR uses a combination of simple phase shift keying (FSK) modulation, and the ARQ protocol for robust error detection and data throughput. PACTOR is most commonly used on frequencies between 1 MHz and 30 MHz.
I first looked into PACTOR last fall. I abandoned the idea when I learned that the terminal node controllers (TNCs) cost hundreds of dollars, an investment I was not comfortable making at the time. In December, I asked around about becoming a DTN station operator. I was told that the operational mode was PACTOR and I balked about having to obtain the necessary TNC. Then I was told that a used TNC would be provided. All I had to pay was a $15 dollar shipping charge. That was more than acceptable. Soon, the loaner TNC arrived. It was about 25 years old and supposedly could handle the required PACTOR digital node.
I found a appropriate AC/DC adapter, but I had to jury-rig a mic cable to connect it to my radio and the 5 pins on the back of the TNC. I also had a audio cable on hand for the radio output to the TNC. An RS-232/serial port USB adapter cable connects the TNC to my laptop PC.
The AirMail software was downloaded and installed on my laptop. That needed to be configured to interface with the TNC. The TNC was switched on and AirMail was opened. Following initialization of the HF mode, the TNC successfully initialized. My radio AGC was set to 6 and for 40 watts output. It was then tuned to a frequency for a nearby PACTOR station. Then the receive threshold was properly set on the TNC. I tried to connect to a PACTOR station but no joy.
After several days of troubleshooting, with the assistance of two fellow amateur radio operators, I tried a loopback test on the TNC. This involved disconnecting the TNC from the radio and connecting the mic and audio input pins, on the TNC, with a jumper wire. Then a terminal software app was setup to connect the TNC with itself. This test failed and indicated the problem was with the TNC.
I was able to obtain an identical TNC on eBay for a modest and very affordable price. When it arrived, I quickly set it up for a loopback test. The test was successful. I then connected it to my laptop and radio, and it successfully connected to a PACTOR station. The operators of two PACTOR stations modified their configurations to recognize my station. Then I was able to send and retrieve national traffic system (NTS) messages.
I now routinely log in to retrieve NTS messages from The 3rd Region Hub for The Western Pennsylvania Section, on every even numbered day, sharing the responsibility with another amateur radio operator who checks in on odd numbered days. After retrieving messages, I relay them via The Western Pennsylvania Phone Traffic Net, or deliver them via phone, email or US Mail. I also originate my own messages to send via the NTS.
Contact me if you wish to originate an NTS message.
The National Traffic System (NTS) is an organized network of amateur radio operators sponsored by the American Radio Relay League for the purpose of relaying messages throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Normally, these messages are routine greetings (“Happy birthday Aunt Mary”) to keep the NTS operators active and well practiced in the event they are needed. When there is an emergency or disaster, NTS works closely with the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) to provide emergency communications. The most common type of disaster-related messages are “health and welfare” inquiries and notifications into and out of the area affected by a disaster.
In a time of disaster, it is easy to expand the system by simply creating additional meeting times for the nets with high volume, or by setting up a specific “trunk line” between two points.
During 2018, I have sent over 200 routine messages using the phone and digital modes and during different conditions: summer heat, ice storms, rain, wind, etc. In order to be better prepared, my fellow operators and I would appreciate messages of 25 words or less. All that is needed is the message, a phone number and/or email address, plus the destination town and state. A street address is optional. You may initiate a message by sending the required information to email@example.com.
The Western Pennsylvania Phone and Traffic Net meets daily on 3.983 MHz LSB at 2200 UTC.
Propagation on the 40-meter and 75-meter bands has been very poor during the past few days. I have a backlog of several radiograms to send, as a result, since it has been difficult to hear the other stations on the nets where I usually check-in.
There is a wide “hole” in The Sun’s atmosphere from which gaseous material has been flowing. The resultant solar winds have caused a geomagnetic storm to occur on Earth. The Aurora has been visible in northern Minnesota. The geomagnetic storms may last for more than a day or two.
At last, Spring has arrived in Halfmoon Valley. After a long Winter, temperatures have become more moderate with highs in the 60s and 70s. Forsythia are blooming and local apple orchards, Bradford pear, and other deciduous trees are leafing out. Farmers in the valley are plowing and planting their fields.
My outdoor activities are becoming more frequent, too. I assembled my wife’s gardening cart, and I installed a vertical HF antenna. My radio shack is now complete.