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W3AO Field Day The 2017 Edition

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Another year goes by. This¬† is the 8th time I have supported Amateur Radio Field Day here in Howard County. It’s the 20th anniversary of W3AO being on the air for the 24 hour event.

I want to write more about what goes on, down in the trenches, to make any large event like this, composed completely of volunteers, successful. I could call this year’s effort “Doing More with Less”. Less people in total. Less stations set up. This year the club dropped down to 16 Alpha. That means, capability to simultaneously transmit on 16 radios, using generators as power.

A cheat sheet on one of the computers. You try to contact as many regions, as many states and provinces, as you can, during the 24 hour operating period. When you establish a radio contact, you exchange the following information. Their call sign. Their number of transmitters and a letter that tells you if they are using generators, batteries, are mobile or at home using commercially supplied power. Their section. We are MDC, Maryland/District of Columbia region.

The interesting thing about our set up is the sheer number of portable crank up towers. Twelve in all.

On Friday, three small teams of volunteers put up the towers, build the antennas, roll out the coaxial cables and it all fits inside a 300 meter diameter circle on the property between two county schools. They also string wire antennas between some of the towers. Additionally, we set up a satellite communication capability.

It’s fun to head down there when a satellite comes within range and watch them track and make contact with other operators while the satellite remains “open” to both stations.

Things inside the main tent are also interesting. It’s a juxtaposition of really old and really new. As in the Windows dinosaur computers, in order to use logging software, called CT. It doesn’t work on newer operating systems. Put that next to a “K3”, one of the fanciest radios out there, and it becomes one very jarring visual.

Band captains bring their own radios. Their keyers. Their headphones. Sometimes their monitors and other accessories. They don’t mess around.

We set up three generators, and the county loans us a spare, in order to power all this “Stuff”.

And you thought setting up your TV/VCR was complicated?

Really, though, I have such a great time watching this all come together in order to have a successful weekend.

It’s a great team. More in another post in the next few days. Incuding, logistics, and scoring.

Otherwise, the official team photograph.

W3AO Field Day 2016 Never A Dull Moment

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So, what do you do to make Field Day for Amateur Radio operators more interesting? Put it on a site that recently had a drive by tornado? Add a warning for a young black bear in the area? Have both generators not work because of battery problems? Have the replacement generator experience power surges to 150 volts which fried a few power supplies? Have the tent supplier substitute two small tents for the one you ordered?

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The reason we operate this exercise, is to show we can be responsive in the event of a local or national emergency. We certainly had our share of excitement this year.

How did we do? We don’t know yet, but it should be great, since we put so much effort into fully embracing the activity. This year they added a new bonus category. Social media promotion. We created a Facebook page and uploaded quite a bit of video and photos to show how much effort (and fun) went into field day.

We also were encouraged to add the younger set into our Get On The Air (GOTA) station. Which had many, many little ones making contacts after simple coaching.

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All in all, it was another perfect weekend. Weather cooperated. Lots of new visitors learned how we use radio to supplement the other communication devices, in the case of emergency. Rather important for us these days. As we definitely had communication problems in west county last week, with downed telephone wires and damaged cell towers.

Thanks also to Howard County Office of Emergency Management, who loaned us a generator.

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A Near Miss

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Yesterday was a day for our “history” books. Having a tornado on the ground for 20 minutes, that passed only 1 mile or so north of us. Not a fun middle of the day activity. Trying to decide if we should head for the basement as the wind whipped fiercely outside our doors.

We were lucky. Minimal damage.

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Four trees down along the property line. Three in a group. That just missed taking out one of our small towers in the side yard.

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About an hour after the storm, we were out there chopping wood away from the guy wires. If we didn’t relieve the pressure, we could have had a tower come through our bedroom window.

Not great. But, we were lucky. No power outages. No damaged buildings.

Our local radio friends. Had some serious damage. W3LPL had a tower come down. He was in the direct path of the storm. Just last Saturday he had his annual open house, with his antenna tour.

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Today. Not just antenna damage. But, a tower down.

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We can’t get down his road to see if he needs anything. Their phones are messed up, and their cell service seems to be affected because we couldn’t get coverage out there. He was interviewed today on the local TV station, saying that they were lucky the tower fell away from the house.

Mother Nature is simply scary. In the blink of an eye, you can have a major mess to deal with.

As I said, we were lucky. And, I want to give my appreciation to the crews out there trying to put massive amounts of power lines back into service.

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Everywhere we went today, during our multiple trips to the landfill, and surrounding areas (we had some weird detours trying to get there and back), we encountered dozens of trucks and workers, lifting wires and poles, cutting trees and clearing debris.

Burntwoods Rd this afternoon had at least 15 trucks trying to piece back together the poles taken out.

Hopefully, all will be calm for this weekend’s Amateur Radio Field Day. More on that in the next few days. As for now, we are just happy we have minimal mess.

Topping The Tower

We had to do this today. I headed off to Kendall’s to find the biggest flag I could get.

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We both worked in DC in 2001. Him at L’Enfant Plaza. Me at the Navy Yard. Watching the smoke from the Pentagon. Not able to communicate because the phone lines were swamped. We got home hours apart, and wondered if things would ever be the same.

No planes in the skies, except for fighter jets scrambling over our homes, as we lived less than 25 miles from downtown DC.

We won’t ever forget. It was only fitting today to top the tower we built, with the biggest flag we could find.

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Getting there step by step. Foot by foot. Now, to add antennas, cables and finish the ground rods.

But today, just a simple gesture. Remembering our colleagues who lost their lives 14 years ago.


Real Hams Don’t Use Cranes

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They build towers by hand. This has been a real education for me. Watching a master at work. The tower is now at 72 feet. How do you get those pieces up there?

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You send them up by pulley. This tower is erected in small pieces. Diagonals. Steps. Vertical supports. All sent up by hand. Placed and bolted in.

I have been really impressed to watch it. My husband has been ground crew. And engineer of guy wires.

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Slowly but surely the tower is going up.

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This is from 62 feet. The tower will go to 82 feet, then the mast will rise up to 97 feet with an antenna on the top. With our elevation of 630 feet out here where we live, and this tower, my better half will have no problem talking to hams on the other side of the world.

When it’s done, it will be awesome. Can’t believe we have been working towards this for over a year. Finally he is close to having a bucket list item checked off. One kick butt station. Now, we just have to get all those antennas and the cables done.

Thanks to W3LPL, a master at tower climbing and assembling.

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Good Neighbors

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We love living out here. The people surrounding us are so friendly, helpful, and just a joy to have as neighbors and friends. After all, where can you easily put up a radio tower with loads of help, and neighbors who aren’t opposing your construction?

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Bit by bit, my husband’s radio tower is taking shape. With more than a little help from our friends (and neighbors).

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Drive over our yard to get to yours? No problem.

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Help drop 12 feet of tower into a hole? Three people show up to help.

Borrow your truck to pick up concrete? Sure.

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Dig the hole for you? Yep, did that in a past career and happy to help you.

This whole tower project had been nothing but a collaborative effort. Even down to neighbors lending hoses to get out that 400 feet from the house.

I really can’t remember that kind of help back when we lived in Columbia. Just another reason I like living in the “outback”, where friendship and sharing is the norm.

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Almost have a tower. We need another county inspection followed by the erection of all the sections. We are slowly but surely getting to the goal.

Field Day Part Two W3AO

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Wind and rain can not stop us from broadcasting. Even a “little” rain, like close to four inches on Saturday. Our annual weekend emergency ops practice, aka Field Day, went on as planned. Well, not quite as planned. There were quite a few adjustments being made just as we were ready to start.

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This was Saturday before the second deluge arrived, and after the first. Everything battened down.

As usual the club members managed to think ahead and make things work.

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A quick trip to Home Depot for 4’X8′ plywood and 2″X4″ boards to make platforms for under all the tables.

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Not the most comfortable conditions to cut wood, but you do what you have to do.

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They did keep the tables and chairs from sinking into the ground. Emergency preparedness is one goal of this weekend exercise. We certainly seemed to test that goal this weekend.

We had many people watching our operation. We had our contacts over at the County Emergency Operations Center prepared to let us know if high winds or thunderstorms were heading our direction. If they did, we would have to lower the antennas, disconnect the cables and hunker down in our cars and trucks. Thankfully, no thunder or lightning, and the winds weren’t severe. We had more wind on Sunday, but the towers did OK.

This year we used more of the heavier, more secure screw in anchors for the guy wires to the towers. Anyplace we thought the ground could saturate, and where we had the largest heaviest antennas mounted, we used those anchors.

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Above is what I am talking about. This picture is from our tower in our yard. We use these stronger, longer anchors.

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This anchor is what we usually put in for the 24 hour Field Day event. It can be installed in less time. The screw in anchors take more time and are definitely what you want in soft earth when you are putting up one of these.

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The twenty meter beams, two of them, are the heaviest antennas out in the field. All the work done by the set up crews in advance lowers the probability of failures during bad weather.

We had visitors on Saturday during some of the bad weather. Some Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) MD Joint Operations Center (MJOC) crew. How’s that for acronyms? Many county Emergency Ops Center employees, who all know the club members who volunteer supporting them.

A few special ones, too. Like our county executive, Allan Kittleman.

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He’s talking here to Dave Prestel, who leads our RACES efforts. They were talking about the ways our volunteers can get even more involved in supporting the emergency ops center and the fire department.

We even got him on our Get On The Air station.

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Since this event is somewhat competitive, as well as a public service event, we get bonus points for things such as attendance by elected officials, and attendance by those MEMA MJOC employees.

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This picture is a favorite of mine because it shows how Rich KE3Q is instructing the county executive in how to make contacts with other stations, while we have an OEM employee looking on.

Sometime soon I will get the email that was sent out with the final tally of how many stations we contacted. Even in some really awful weather conditions, the club hangs in there and searches for stations all across the country and north into the Canadian provinces.

We may be “amateur” in name but our volunteers are professional in their dedication to excellence in what they do. Plus, we have a good time doing that.

Field Day Part One W3AO

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Set up time. At least the weather cooperated and it didn’t rain at all on us Friday as we put together another yearly effort in emergency management communications. The two local amateur radio clubs here in Howard County pair up. A first class public service and emergency support club, and an elite group of “contesters”, i.e. radio operators who try to make the most contacts in a fixed amount of time.

The two skill sets can be important when we encounter real life emergencies that require additional communication support.

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These are our real unsung “heroes”. They come out in all sorts of weather to erect portable communications towers and antennas, unroll miles (two to be exact) of coaxial cables, install computers, three generators, sleeping, eating and operating tents, and so much more.

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I think this sums it up quite well. If we didn’t have awesome volunteers to do this work on their own time, we couldn’t operate a successful “Field Day”.

We always know we are ready to go when the flags go up. Which they did Saturday morning just before the deluge.

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I will be writing a second part about how this talented, quick thinking group of “hams” managed to continue operating in what could be considered emergency conditions. Like three inches of rain in a few hours.

Until then, after I go help make the grilled burgers and dogs, and we tear down our support tents while the volunteers take down the towers, here’s my interim “Thank You” again from all of us who appreciate the help.

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Thirty four people from Columbia Amateur Radio Club and Potomac Valley Radio Club worked on Friday to make this weekend happen.

The operation ends at 2 PM today. We hope the weather stays nice while we disassemble all this stuff and put it away again until next year, or until we need some of it, and the skilled operators, to support the county Office of Emergency Management, the fire department, and various bike races, foot races and other community activities.

Don’t Forget to Relax

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I need to keep repeating that mantra this week. There were (and are) so many events and activities in my life this week, I needed today to relax and get ready for Round Two, so to speak.

It’s the beginning of my harvest season. It’s the annual Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) emergency preparedness activity, otherwise known as Field Day this weekend. There were blogger parties, which I missed. A crab feast on Kent Island, that I did get to attend. CSA pick up. Friends and Farms pick up.

Making pickles. Making salads and sides for Field Day. Ordering ten pizzas for set up day tomorrow. Getting to Costco for my part of the provisions (oh, and add to that the fact the car broke down in their parking lot).

I also missed a Conservancy event, Fiddlers and Fireflies. Just too tired to get there.

I can’t believe how many things there are to do around here. This is such an active area. Lots of outdoor things to do. Today we got a note for volunteers to help with a Columbia Families in Nature event this Sunday out at Mt. Pleasant. I will still be tearing down our makeshift kitchen at our Field Day site.

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Plus. Squeezing in a visit to Lisa, a fellow volunteer and blogger, who is embarking on a trip around the world with her family, for a year. Bon Voyage to Lisa. Can’t wait to follow your web page with your journal.

By the way, we love visitors to our Field Day site. Have you ever wanted to contact someone from Canada, or Hawaii, or Alaska or any of the other states? We put up a fun station for those not licensed to try out their communication skills. Children love to come talk to people on the other side of the USA.

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The Field Day event runs from Saturday 2 PM until Sunday 2 PM. We are at Triadelphia Ridge Elementary School. Our GOTA (get on the air) station is always a big hit with local families. Come see us. Maybe you will also see our satellite capability operators contact the International Space Station. They have done it almost every year.

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All in all, even though it is exhausting, I wouldn’t trade living here for anything. So many great things to do. Not enough hours in the day.

One Wild Weekend

Never a dull moment around here. Even when we do stay home.

Valentine’s Day is a day I cook a special dinner paired with an old wine. We don’t fight the crowds in restaurants. And, since the weather was awful, we had our romantic feast without the worry of trying to drive home in the snow and ice.

All that running around Wednesday for the CSA and Friends and Farms, and Thursday for the lamb and shrimp in Mt. Airy meant I could cook at leisure, and savor our dinner.

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Who knew things would get real exciting a few hours later. Looking out the window of the dining room from the kitchen I see a line of flashing red lights at the end of our driveway. What is going on? I call down to my husband who is on the radio looking for a rare contact, and head out into the wind.

What do I find? A car in the driveway. That, I see, is OK, as they are assisting a friend in emptying their car before a tow truck arrives. The paramedics are putting people in the ambulance, from the other car, the one we couldn’t see, as it was dangling over the embankment held up by trees and our mailboxes. Well, what used to be our mailboxes. Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt but my other neighbors spent this morning trying to find mail all over the fields across from us. We, being home all day, had retrieved our mail before our mailbox went bye bye.

Sheared off at the base. In freezing weather. Now, we are searching for someone who can put a new one into the frozen hillside. Until then, mail will be forwarded to our PO box, which my husband uses for radio contact cards.

Adding to all the other excitement, we were awakened at 3 am by what sounded like banshees howling. 60+ knot wind gusts. For a very very long time. Sleep? Who could sleep through this? At least the hexbeam held up on the tower. Another milestone for the tower. Surviving winds of that speed.

This morning. I was lucky. The bird feeders survived. But, the bird bath was empty. All the water blew out. I had to go out, fill it up and spread seed for the very cold birds out there. This weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Count, and today, I counted a gazillion juncos out there. Really. I couldn’t count them all. The ground was covered in them.

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Along with the cardinals, sparrows, blue jays, starlings, woodpeckers, robins, finches and crows, I think I got a good count as everyone hit the seed and the water.

I am so tired of winter. Spring needs to get here soon.