The KY ARES Shaken Fury Mess

June 3, 2019

For those of you that have emailed over the last few days I started to put this together as quasi form letter response to many of you. Appreciate the discussions up to this point, but the hobby inbox became a 2nd job over the weekend. Thus I’m just going to put things in a blog post. I started to just add it as another FAQ within an existing draft “update” posting I’ve been putting together this Spring but that is turning into a novel of its own and the questions here have piled up.

Outsiders (non locals, semi-locals) reading this may feel a little “I’m missing something” in a few places. Don’t worry about that.

Recently FEMA held the Shaken Fury exercise. An exercise built around a major earthquake striking the New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ). This is one of those frankly “when, not if” type of disaster threats looming over emergency management folks in Western KY and the surrounding region.  May 30th was the ham radio side of things and while apparently few details of it were clearly published (more on that later) to the Kentucky ham community I knew some details from the FEMA/SHARES side of it.

That morning I had an hour or two to spare so I decided to work out of the hamshack. As I began listening several eyebrow raising things were observed in play and I began taking notes in chrono format into my “day job” log document. The exercise officially began and within a minute or two the the ham radio side of it was, at best, on shaky ground credibility wise.

From afar only the HF voice net stuck me as credible given the scenario involved. I took notes amidst other distractions and inserted my usual brand of humor/sarcasm to things. I pointed out that some of the digital voice nets (requiring the internet for coverage) were inappropriate for this kind of incident where wide spread power, internet, and cellular infrastructure outages would be expected.

I later cut-n-pasted those notes into a new document, converted the times to UTC, stripped out some work related items and posted it to the main KY mailing list clearly noted as just some limited observations from afar. I posted it with an intro in the email trying to be gentle about things and took care to give credit to where credit was do.

The first list response was in agreement and some later direct messages were along the same lines while others were surprised an exercise was even going on. The later was indicative of another problem I had not noticed.

Unfortunately things on the mailing list would later turn into childishness. Ultimately one individual never even mentioned or eluded to in the document decided his favorite mode was under attack and took it way too personally. What followed was a conflicted message devolving into a personal attack complete with name calling. I gave a brief response noting the hypocrisy at play, that most folks seemed to be able to take the opinions as just that, and wished him a good day.

I took a review of what I posted and told myself yeah I could of been gentler in places, but those upset were just trying to avoid addressing the core criticisms by going after the messenger versus a constructive conversation.  I was never very good in debate class but I do remember one of the rules was the moment you get mad and turn to personal attacks is the moment you’ve lost the argument.

Some in my inbox seem to feel these personal attacks were more of a bully tactic trying to squelch anyone else from chiming in. I’m not so sure that it was the case, but one has to wonder when you factor in some other tactics on display.

If that document got someone that emotionally unwound then they are unlikely to fair well at a real world disaster command post or EOC where stress is high, tempers are short, and words are often snippy.   PS – I’ve worked a few disasters, spent too many hours in EOCs, and handled hundreds if not thousands of real emergencies in my former career. Don’t claim to be an expert and still learning new things, but I can apply experience and logic to determine what is and is not appropriate communication platforms for such an exercise.

Later one of this guy’s buddies tried coming to his defense with an even more appalling message full of ignorance about someone he didn’t know, a fatally flawed argument trying to compare the tornado strikes in Ohio to this exercise scenario, repeating concessions I had previously made from the get go, and then into the gutter for more personal attacks.

The tornado strikes mentioned haven’t created any significant communications emergency other than folks struggling to find ways to keep their cell phones charged up. That is not to make light of the damage, injuries, loss of life, and the recovery struggles of those impacted there. Still it is ridiculous to compare that situation to the impact of this scenario hitting.

I would get a call that evening with interesting background on both of these individuals that explained a lot. I was also asked to not reply to the second attack as due to the personality involved it would only inflame things. I told him I wasn’t going to bother with a reply there on the list but may cover it some in a later blog posting. When asked what I was going to blog about I said he’d just have to wait and see, but I promised keep it as gentle as possible. A brief but productive conversation followed.

 

FAQ:  Did Steve sign off on this exercise?

ANSWER:  I don’t know, but I do know him well enough that it was likely with “reservations” if he did. Steve and myself go back a ways on some packet radio stuff and he’s a good man trying to pull the mess of KY ARES back together. Unfortunately he seems constantly neck deep in alligators with the personalities and agendas involved. I suspect he’s fighting a losing battle, but respect his efforts to try and resurrect KY ARES.

I last talked with Steve a few months back after I questioned an odd leadership stance that no one can be critical of things unless they have a fix. You may of saw that on the mailing list as my “don’t get on the horse unless you’re ready to ride it” comments. He called me that afternoon and we had a good long conversation. We ultimately agreed on some things and to just agree to disagree on other things.

I know it seems to be completely out of style lately, but believe it or not good people can vigorously disagree on policy and still be friends.

 

 

FAQ:  Was exercise traffic passed over PSK31 without any integrity mechanisms in place?

ANSWER:  I get conflicting reports on that. I wasn’t around to monitor that portion as I had work/family obligations to take care of.  Definitely troubling if it was as that would be another major no no and training issue.

 

FAQ:  Are you anti-FUSION?

ANSWER:  I have FTM-400’s in both shacks and several Yaesu FT-70’s. Not exactly an investment that an anti-FUSION guy would make LOL. Also been considering converting our 440 analog system over to dual-mode. Again, not something an anti-FUSION guy would do LOL. I’ve often said if we could have the D-Star feature set with the FUSION codec then we hams would have something very useful.

Just because one takes exception to misapplication of a particular system to an exercise scenario doesn’t mean one is anti that mode or the like.

 

FAQ:  Are you anti-DMR?

ANSWER:  Some of my income comes from installing DMR gear and I own a pile of it. Again not something an anti-DMR person would do.

I do have some issues with some of what hams have done to DMR, but that would take another novel of a blog posting to cover in detail. Let’s just say my ham DMR experiences actually makes me appreciate FUSION and D-Star LOL. Most of what I run across is a mess that is both too fragile and unreliable to be taken seriously for EmComm.

In fairness there are a few MESH/non-internet networked ham DMR systems out there that are c-bridge based, well managed, and frankly a joy to use in terms of network consistency and reliability.

 

FAQ:  Was Winlink appropriate for this exercise?

ANSWER:  Yes with some caveats. Let’s face it the odds of the local VHF gateways in the impact area all being up after this struck is low. P2P Winlink over VHF/UHF links would remain doable over simplex ranges.

HF access to gateways outside of the impacted region would see heavy use but also run into capacity challenges.  Well planned out HF P2P Winlink would also seem to be a good fit for certain regional shots, especially if the other end doesn’t have functional email.  Remember the ability to send an email doesn’t do much good if the other end can’t receive it. Sadly very few in EmComm using Winlink even plan, train, and are prepared to use P2P Winlink.

 

FAQ:  Are you anti-internet?

ANSWER:  Ah, no….the internet helps me do most of my work from wherever I’m at. The internet is a key component of how I make my living. I also use the internet to supplement my ham radio activities within reasonable limits.

That said, there are SOME places where myself and many others feel that the mixing of the internet and ham radio either is inappropriate or is breeding laziness/apathy towards the use of radio for communication links. NBD normally, but it becomes way too risky when this stuff gets moved into emergency communications. That cute slogan out there of “More Ham Radio, less Ham Internet” has merit to it.

As someone mentioned in my inbox when you look at some of this stuff being done it can only be best described as an odd way to get around just using Zello or Skype….and often those would work better LOL.  I would add that if we’re not careful we may start finding served agencies realizing they can just use Zello/FireChat/etc and do essentially the same thing with far less restrictions. For those paying attention during the past few hurricanes Zello very effectively replaced the need for ham radio in many places.

IP radios and IP to Radio interfaces are easily found even on Amazon today. I’ve had one at my 7-land QTH patched into our biz channel radio via Zello for a couple years now and it works great.

 

FAQ:  Why do you care?

ANSWER: Well given that my time in 4-land is numbered I could easily (and probably should) adopt an attitude of “let ’em figure it out the hard way, not my problem.” That said the day job has let me see a growing shift in EM from high respect to having either a bad or indifferent attitude towards ARES. The reasons for this are many and material for another lengthy blog posting. The growth of them looking to utilize hams in more of a CERT/AuxComm role is showing up every time I turn around.

Ultimately for me it boils down to I like looking up at that 11×7″ band chart on my wall and seeing all that spectrum we have available. I’d prefer it not fit on a 4×6 post card with lots of asterisks on it.

Before long we are going to see a new wave of threats against our spectrum….yes even HF.  There are commercial interests out there that are currently doing their homework on us and how we are using (or not) our spectrum. They are preparing to argue that the public interest would be better served with them having primary access to sizeable chunks of our spectrum. For those in AR EmComm worried about FirstNet? Don’t worry about FirstNet, at least the first generation of it. Do worry about the spectrum sucking monster that will follow in the next decade or two.

Ham radio can not afford another Katrina. In KY ham radio can not afford another failure (big picture wise) like the 2009 Ice Storm was. Another lackluster response from ham radio to the next major stateside disaster will only expedite the above threats to our spectrum.

Thus this is why I often “preach” about training for the worst case scenarios and hoping for the best versus the opposite approach. If you’re going to sell yourselves as the folks to call when “all else has failed” then you best be trained, prepared and practiced at functioning in that environment. Anything else is unlikely to end well when it hits the fan.

 

Some final points to be covered….

I saw this odd new diversion tactic of “you didn’t participate so you can’t be critical” being attempted. Sorry I don’t need anyone’s permission to comment on things done in public view. Such attitudes and comments are absurd and part of the problem at play here. PS – I don’t participate in genocide nor do I need anyone’s permission to be critical of it LOL.

When you do something as the public face of ham radio then your fellow hams have every right to compliment or criticize what you do. Opinions and criticisms are just that and fair game till things turn into personal attacks. I call roses roses and bull$%$% bull$%$%. Always have, always will. If that bothers someone then may I suggest the application of the delete key.

As far as not making meetings or the like equaling one should not comment at all? Again never mind the irrelevancy of that (see above two paragraphs), but the obvious question here is what meetings? Where were these meetings announced as I don’t recall seeing them being announced any place one would expect them to be.

Judging by my inbox a lot of folks only recently knew something was coming up but had no specifics. This actually got me to looking back through my hobby inbox emails and yeah unless you read a monthly newsletter there wasn’t much out there regarding specifics. I suspect things were covered on a prior statewide net, but let’s remember that net maybe gets a few dozen check-ins across a state with 120 counties and nearly 10,000 licensed hams. Yeah that’s indicative of several other problems on both sides of things, but I’ll save that for another novel LOL.

Okay time to wrap this posting up.

None of this should be construed as an “attack” on the Shaken Fury exercise as it was a good scenario to try out. Especially good given the probabilities of it actually happening. There were actually some pretty solid things done on the FEMA/SHARES/State EM side of things and the AAR should be a good read. Hopefully many folks were left thinking “wow, that was intense and we have some work ahead of us to improve.”

 

WA4ZKO


Packet Update, Winlink, Is Ham Radio Dying? Puerto Rico

May 26, 2018

Since the inbox shows some got worried when we went west early with only the APRS gate/digi project done I guess an update would be a good idea.

We went west for a friend’s wedding.  Pro Tip: Few things can compare to a wedding set against the Teton Mountains. Since we spent most of the post-holiday Winter season in 4-land I also had several 7-land biz/personal items needing attention. I flew back and the XYL is driving back as she wanted to stop and visit with her Iowa family.

For the worries about the packet stuff getting done this Spring/Summer? Well I had been waiting on two Liebert UPS systems to come in so I can finish up the power and remote control side of the “packet/HF” rack. They are in and this looks like a somewhat slow weekend/week ahead so we’ll see what gets done this week. completion time = good question. Between work and Dad’s health issues I’m not going to commit to any timelines on hobby stuff as I can barely nail down a work schedule beyond a week out. It is what it is, family and work come first.

What’s going to be put on the air?  Well I can say for sure that a 10m RP port and a UHF 9.6k port are coming. Our core occasional EMCOMM needs can be met by a local packet BBS with a 10m RP port plus a UHF 9.6k port. I’m still back-n-forth on spinning up the 2m/220 1.2k stuff. Granted we have lost several local ops in the last decade or so due to SK and job related moves, but I’m frankly more than a little shocked at how dead ham radio seems around here and across Kentucky.

A lot of area packet and voice infrastructure has came and gone within the last few years. “Lack of usage” is usually the reason given. Even worse I often hear sysops of existing gear commenting that they really can’t justify keeping unused stuff on the air. Several have said they’ll run it till they take storm damage then it will not be repaired. Use it or loose it folks.

APRS activity for “Dayton” seemed to be down somewhat. On that note, one of the western Kentucky ops emailed me that he came up for Dayton and could not hit a single Winlink packet gateway with his D710. I looked at the Winlink gateway map below and could only ask where are all the gateways? Lexington/Frankfort is a dead zone??? Several of the WKY gateways seem MIA. The SE KY gateway doesn’t exist, it is actually just a misconfigured Georgia gateway.

ky_rms_pkt_map_dayton_wknd_20180520

The other day I was at a tower site and tapped into a VHF-Hi antenna port to a nice true 6 dBd omni up at 210′ AHAG that I can hit repeaters from Lexington/Richmond, Louisville, and up into Dayton/Columbus from. Fired up Winlink Express, pulled the freshly updated channel list below and could not hit anything. Granted I was just using 4-5w from a FT-817 (very possible 25/45w could change things) to a 150-160 MHz optimized antenna. Still that’s not much of a gateway selection list compared to a few years ago. Lot of previously active systems around here are gone, misconfigured, or off the air for some reason. Yes I checked for the EMCOMM group.

RMS_Packet_few_20180526

Past chats with some of the Winlink sysops I know all reveal a common thread. Folks talk of wanting this or that infrastructure and it sees a brief burst of interest then activity just fades away. One sysop that shut his gateway down told me it was seven months before someone asked about his gateway’s status LOL.

In fairness this is not just a packet problem, we also see similar with the current state of D-Star, DMR, and the analog repeater scenes. I ran our group’s portable analog repeater from a couple sites from October 2017 till early May 2018. I kept it patched into a couple systems so I could both record and monitor any activity on it.  Over all that time the repeater’s total transmit time was just over 52 minutes. 99% of that was just the IDer running from lots of kerchunking, only four unique callsigns heard beyond mine, and two brief QSOs. As I told the guys, no need of risking that to storm damage for that amount of activity so it is back in storage till this Fall.

Several have commented that the hobby is dying a slow death. While I’m not going to be that dramatic the hobby is definitely facing some serious activity related challenges in most areas of the country. This even includes areas which used to be hotbeds of activity. We now have a boatload of paper hams and hams that have gone or remain inactive for a wide variety of reasons.

Kentucky has nearly 10,000 licensed hams so “where the heck are they?” is a fair and obvious question. I found it revealing awhile back when the primary ham radio mailing list for the state revealed only about 450 subscribers when they began a move to another mailing list system. I just looked and only around 190 have migrated to the new system after several months. One does not need to be a Harvard MBA to be floored by those numbers. Yes it’s easy to be a Negative Nate on this stuff, but Step 1 to fixing a problem is recognizing that you have one.

When asked about the latest ARRL licensing proposal I can only respond with “I  don’t think lowering our standards once again is going to change much. The downsides are many for a hobby of technical pursuits. I do thank the ARRL for the free lunch.”  For those wondering about the “free lunch” portion of that? Well I made a lunch bet back in 2016 that if ARRL membership continues to decline then expect another push to lower licensing standards.

To be blunt, the further “dumbing down” of the hobby is not the fix unless the problem revolves around fixing the flow of subscription/advertising money. You know it’s not like passing the current General class test is so difficult. Common to hear stories of folks that take the Tech test, pass it, then be handed the General for giggles and either pass it or barely fail it. It’s not like during the last solar cycle we had Techs piled up deep on the sweet chunk of 10m spectrum they already have access to. Since chasing “quantity” (ahem money) hasn’t worked out so well maybe it’s time to try focusing on quality?  I could go on and on but this post will likely be long enough as is LOL.

So back to VHF/UHF packet…..

Considering all the above I’m obviously going to have to ponder how much 1200 baud VHF gear I want to put on the air. Would it see enough BBS and Winlink usage to justify it? If it wasn’t for already having the gear and putting in the extra rack space for the remote HF-UHF station then it wouldn’t even be on the table for consideration.

 

My stance on Winlink….

I’ve never been overly warm to the VHF/UHF side of Winlink. It doesn’t make as much sense as the HF side of Winlink does. One of the locals did make a reasonable argument that since the Dry Ridge site serves several counties across a handful of power grids and ISPs then there are a few EMCOMM scenarios when VHF/UHF packet Winlink access could be useful, especially at 9600 baud.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Winlink for a variety of reasons. Some are security related, the abuse that goes on, software stability, software roadmap stability, and ability to audit what content is flowing over systems under my license. Let’s examine each one of these..

  1. Security remains a big concern. Moving things onto a certain cloud provider doesn’t help make one feel all warm and fuzzy but I get why they did it.
  2. The abusive use of Winlink on HF remains a concern. Sounds like it’s gotten worse now that the solar cycle has forced more and more of the HF Winlink folks down onto already crowded lower HF bands.
  3. Software stability issues remain. Client software glitches are one thing, but gateway software needs to be rock solid. We are now how many years into the development of the RMS software?
  4. The software roadmap appears as spastic as ever. There is really no reason why the version silliness needs to go on to the degree that it does. I mean come on after all this time surely we can have long term production versions that do the basics and do them well. Then have a beta fork for those that wish to play with whatever new shiny soundcard mode is the current rage. If I put RMS services on my gateway and it’s a never ending PITA of having to upgrade and revalidate new software versions then RMS will quickly go bye bye. I can always use the SMTP functions in BPQ32 for my own limited “Plan D” backup email needs.
  5. The ability of the sysop to audit content flowing over his/her RMS gateway is a mandatory requirement in my book. If you can’t inspect the content flowing over your system then how do you detect abuse and ensure rule compliance. While it’s not as good as it could be I will  credit the WDT for giving RMS gateway sysops some ability to review messages flowing over their gateways. Does it need improvements? Yes, but it is a start in the right direction.

So as you can hopefully see there are many things being considered in regards to what will be reinstalled and what new features will or will not be available.

 

Packet TNC options…..

Some have commented they would consider saving up for some packet gear if they knew with some certainty about what is going to be available long term. 10m RP (Robust Packet), 9.6k UHF, and maybe the 6m/220 1.2k baud AFSK ports should be around for the long haul. Due to how noisy the VHF band can be in some of our needed coverage locations I may convert the 6m 1.2k port to RP also. If I put the 2m 1.2k and 220 1.2k ports back online their future will be dependent upon their usage levels which I will examine in a couple years to see if they are worth maintaining.

Two decades of experience showed the 220 band was more useful than the 2m port. This was due to being cleaner spectrum and greatly reduced desense/bleed-over issues when we worked along side our public safety systems which are predominately 150 MHz. 145 MHz also tends to be full of various noise/QRM sources and that problem is only getting worse.

 

The ARRL / ARES Puerto Rico Adventures?

My KP4 trip was months afterwards and unrelated to any of that hot mess. I’ve heard both some first hand accounts and a lot of second hand stuff including the thought provoking interview the HRN crew did with a couple ops that went into post-hurricane KP4 for disaster relief. In short I could write a mini-novel on that topic. I’ll just hit on a few key points here that will be lengthy enough.

First – The ham radio failures in more than a view major drills and disasters of the last couple years should serve as major wake-the-heck-up calls for the EMCOMM folks. I’m around a lot of LMR and EMA folks for my day job. Trust me today many of these leaders are not impressed by the local ARES groups and are going to call the MARS folks first. Lot of this is due to past bad experiences and the often correct observation that their MARS teams are both better equipped, better trained, and thus more likely to meet a particular EMCOMM tasking.

If ARES wants to sell itself as the ones to call for when all else fails then ARES better be equipped, trained, and well practiced at operating under such conditions.  Hint – it takes more than fancy radios and go kits.

Second – Please DO NOT send folks into disaster zones with only soundcard modes for Winlink needs. Yes I concede that it sounded like they had to put that HF gear together quickly (didn’t already have it????) with portability and accountability in mind. Still for the love of Pete equip them with quality Pactor modems that are going to work better under the often marginal conditions of such deployments. Keep the soundcard modems as backups if you wish. That “you get what you pay for” saying has some merit to it.  Hint – there are reasons why SCS doesn’t sell soundcard Pactor software when they could make a fortune if they did.

PS – SCS would probably deeply discount Pactor modems to such official staged HF disaster go kits if asked via the proper channels. They have been generous towards good causes in the past. Hint hint hint hint!

Third – Even at this point in the solar cycle, down there, that time of the year, the higher bands will often be your best friends so take appropriate antenna system(s) with you. This “we’ll do it all on 80/40m” mentality continues to be a recipe for failure. 60m NVIS will be handy and having a good antenna for the WARC bands is a really good idea. Be aware that 15-10 meters may not only be open some during the day but may provide some nice SNR on the link. The propagation predictions within the Winlink software are barely useful for the lower bands and can’t predict all the propagation modes on the higher bands. A good op learns HF propagation, understands both solar cycle and seasonal changes, is aware of single/multi hop short skip possibilities on the higher bands, checks the beacon subbands, and tries to use the highest band available for a particular path.

Forth – It seems time for AMSAT to start dreaming big again. Imagine what could be done with a 9600 baud store-n-forward digital bird or two up there. Yes that is easier said than done, but we also need to think beyond HF.

All the above aside, at least some aspects of the KP4 deployments in 2017 were moments ham radio could be proud of even if it was an ugly year for ARES stateside. We also got a real world lesson on the importance of knowing how to handle formal traffic and the NTS folks have things to be proud of.

I see some latched onto the lack of good ICS over the deployment cycle. Not thoroughly knowing both sides of the problems revealed afterwards I would refrain from bashing that aspect of things. As someone that was a first responder for nearly two decades I can tell you that regardless of what you are told beforehand you need to go in prepared to walk right into chaos. You’re not there because things are going well. You must be flexible, able to prioritize, work as a team, and able to adapt on the fly to various surprises. These are situations poorly suited to those that can only function off checklists in textbook scenarios. Ultimately they got a limited crew in, did some good, and then got everyone out safely. Could it of gone better? Of course it could of. There will always be room for improvement.

Non-ham politics of the Puerto Rico disaster? Well in many ways KP4 was a long neglected mess before recent events put it front and center. It did not get that way overnight and it will not be fixed overnight. I think the bigger question is will the repaired infrastructure be well maintained long term? Can their previously struggling economy recover from all that has happened?

WA4ZKO