Over Reliance Can Get You Killed…

Over reliance on both the government and technology can get you killed.  Why would I combine the two, well fearless leader has an over reliance on technology which he then passed onto his drones in the middle of a disaster area.

When President Barack Obama urged Americans under siege from Hurricane Sandy to stay inside and keep watch on ready.gov for the latest, he left out something pretty important — where to turn if the electricity goes out.

Despite the heightened expectation of widespread power and cable television failures, everyone from the president to local newscasters seem to expect the public to rely entirely on the Internet and their TVs for vital news and instructions.

Because complex interconnected systems are reliable when operating out of the their normal range of operation?  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say that social media and the internet isn’t a tool worthy of use or note.  What I am saying is it is not the only tool in the tool box.  Seriously, if you’re power goes out, the only internet connection you’d have left is your smart phone.  Smart phone batteries don’t last forever, especially after you take an update from Google and removes battery saving features, I digress.

The point is  about the most reliable form of emergency communication is radio.  Period, full stop, end of discussion.  AM Radios can be built that do not require extensive antennas or even batteries.  I have handheld HAM radios that no only work on the HAM bands but can also receive shortwave radio sent from thousands of miles away.

That’s the thing about radio, it can be broadcast from outside the disaster area.  All you need within the disaster area is a capable receiver, which most are small compact, and some are even battery free.  Take these for example that I found on Amazon* (not visible in RSS).

Reliance on cellphones, while you can certainly get  hand crank chargers doesn’t mean your cell towers will stay in operation.  Cellular signals are on a shorter wavelength and will not travel as far.  Now most cellular sites have 72 hours of emergency power, but this also assumes their back haul remains active and intact.

I find it unbelievable how over reliant people are on technology to protect them and save them.  Yes it can help you survive, but just like a firearm it isn’t some magic talisman that will save you.  You need to understand how it works so you know it’s limitations.  You need to be familiar with how it can fail so you know what you need to do for plan B or C.

Yes you may not be able to communicate out for help but I have some bad news on the cell phone front during a disaster.  It will probably fail, like it has done in NYC.  Even if you have signal it probably wont work.  For example during the Nisqually Quake in 2001 communications throughout the Puget Sound went down, even emergency dispatch centers lost their primary radios.  Cell phones for the most part were dead, mainly because they were jammed with people trying to communicate in the area.    I got lucky and was able to make a connection to a location 300 miles away, local calls I got nothing.

The key is this, do not count on anything that requires established infrastructure in an emergency.  You could easily lose radio towers however, temporary antennas are easily set up to replace them.  This again was proven during the Nisqually Quake when emergency HAM nets were activated and operationally moving traffic throughout the Puget Sound in under 30 minutes after the quake.

So, have a plan, plan on that plan failing.  No plan survives first contact with the enemy.  Being able to communicate out is a very nice tool to have, but for most instances you just need to be able to hear and receive traffic.

*This is not an endorsement of these products, I have not used them.

Just Use Your Phone and Call 911

There’s only one problem with that.  It doesn’t always work.

For two days, residents in the City of Manassas, Manassas Park, Vienna and Fairfax and Prince William counties were told to call alternate phone numbers, send emails or drive to their nearest police or fire station if they had an emergency.

Tell me, where does one get the alternate numbers when one is knee-deep in to crap.  This is why you can’t depend on 911, you cannot depend on your cell phone.  Heck with yesterdays incident if I had wanted to I could have started self extraction.  It would have taken considerably longer and would have been much more difficult, it would have been possible.  If it had been the other truck I would have self extracted, as doing it with a winch makes life considerably easier.

911 though is not a sure thing in the even of an emergency.  Even when it is working there are oddities that can go wrong.  For instance Cellular skip does happen and you can actually end up calling into a 911 center well beyond your current location.  This is one of the reasons they ask for your location first and foremost.  If you’re in Kansas and you got into Whitman County Washington’s dispatch, they’re not going to be able to help you much.  As a FYI, yes that has happened.

Since 911 has problems why use it at all?  Well because when it does work, it’s an effective way to call in the cavalry.  If it wasn’t for 911, I would have to keep track of all the different numbers for the different services myself.  Not an easy task, especially while traveling.  My point here though is to not plan on it being your sole solution to a problem.  Don’t plan on 911 working correctly when you actually need it because Murphy is bound to show himself.  By all means call for the cavalry but realize it may fail, it may take longer than expected, and most importantly it is going to take time for the cavalry to arrive.  Assess your situation, make sure things are under control and then call for the cavalry.

You are on your own and you may end up being on your own for longer than expected.  Know that you’re call for the cavalry may not exactly work out as planned, your methods may not work, and you may be on your own for longer than you thought.  Remember they have no duty to respond.

We Need More Power!

So, we had a unique power source for field day.  A hydrogen fuel cell.

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There’s a bank of lead acid deep cycle batteries under the fuel cell.  The cell basically acts as a battery tender charging the batteries and supporting the load while it is on and then turning back off when the batteries are full.

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We ran a 48V DC bus (see the extension cord coming out on the left) ran that back into the communications trailer.  This decreased the I2R losses (see also here for info) from the longer cable run.  Within the trailer was a DC to DC converter that put out 13.8V for all of our communications equipment and we also had adapters to run our laptops and other equipment.

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It actually was quite effective and we started with an “empty” tank and still ran for over 8 hours on it.  The calculations are we could run for over 48 hours on a single tank of hydrogen.  The cell its self has a rating of 1KW and we actually did get it up that high, however I didn’t get a picture of it.  The fuel cell was running like mad because we left it off after out thunderstorm to let things dry out.

In the mean time we kicked back into operational mode meaning 2 radios fired back up plus their associated computers and associated equipment for digital operation.  All just running off the batteries without the Fuel Cell maintaining them when necessary.

Our clue to go turn the cell back on was when the low battery alarm went off in the trailer indicating the 48V supply was starting to drop.  We did also have a 12V batter on the other side of the 48V to 12V converter in the trailer.  This was to add extra isolation for surging loads (radios).

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The fuel cell worked great and was always fun when someone would brag about running off of solar.  Yeah, well we’ve harnessed the power of molecular bonds!

For those who don’t know how fuel cells work, the basic premise is that the electron from hydrogen is forced through the circuit as the proton mates with the oxygen to form water.

Now some would call this a wonderfully green technology, however that hydrogen has to come from somewhere, and most often than not it’s through electrolysis.

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*Also as an aside since the wife and I were just talking about it.  If you’re a ham, do not use the term kilo-watt for phonetics.  The word you’re looking for is kilo.  Kilo-watt is very confusing because it is a compound word.  Are you saying K or KW?  Other’s do use the term watt for W, which while incorrect can further add to confusion.  Seriously, the IACO/NATO/ITU phonetic alphabet was developed specifically to limit confusion.  If your word choices were so great, why haven’t they adopted them?

You may think it’s neat and cute, but at least in the case of the wife and I, we slow way down to deal with your choice of phonetics.  I am reasonably sure that I am not the only one who has been confused by this usage.  It’s hard enough to dig phone messages out of the weeds, why add a bit of extra confusion to the conversation.  But that’s just my two cents, take it for what its worth.

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Program…

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So we had a minor hiccup with field day.  Our station is currently off-line and we are sitting in the trailer chit chatting.

Now why would we all move inside?  Well this doesn’t fully show what’s wrong but probably gives you a solid idea of what’s wrong.

It was making loud noises and flashing through the sky.  It just recently stopped hailing.  We disconnected everything and lowered the stepper antenna for safety.  We’re just now slowly starting the system back up.

So this interruption was brought to you by mother nature and we are now returning back to our regularly scheduled program.

CQ Field Day

I’m spending the day doing field day with the local ham radio club.  We actually have a hydrogen fuel cell that we’re running all our radios off of.  We spent a chunk of the morning hooking and setting up antennas including a nice Stepper IR that was donated for use during field day.

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It took us a lot longer than expected to set that bad boy up.  We were having SWR problems and we’ve been trying to debug the issue.  First up was checking all the connections and we discovered this in one of the connections.

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That however wasn’t the problem.  The SWR was still way above 3.  What else could be the problem.  Well we bypassed the 80m tuning coil and bang, SWR dropped to 1.  I think we found the problem.  At that point it was time to grab some lunch and now I’m working on logging while my compatriot runs the radio.

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I’ll be busy until late tonight.  If you’re a fellow ham and you hear KD7PH, feel free to send a shout out. We’re going to start running some of the digital modes here in a bit but were running phone now.

It is nice being able to run that Stepper IR thought anywhere between 40m and 10m.  We haven’t tried running 80m since we pulled the coil but so far if we can hear them we can work them.  All running just measly 100 watts.

We just bumped to 15 meters to see how things will run for now.  I have to say I would like to get one of those for my house, the thought of the cost though doesn’t have me running to buy one

It is nice being able to do all this in an air-conditioned trailer.  Even though storms rolled in, the heat’s still pretty high and the humidity has gone up.  It’s going to be a fun day.