Winter Field Day today. Actually this whole weekend. Put on by SPARS in Ohio. This is technically a field day type contest and some people might sweat the details in their electronic logs about how many contacts they can make in different modes on different bands into different counties, states and countries with different power levels using different antennas. Some may do this more than once if they are using different radio rigs for different bands. But basically, if you can drag your portable stuff out into the garage or onto the back porch and set up some quick and dirty antenna in the back yard to go with it, you are getting the flavor of emergency communications. Any contact you can maintain for a minute or two, no matter where it is or how scratchy it might sound still counts in the end.
The reason we have field days, at different times of the year, is usually to set up and practice communications under emergency type conditions. Wouldn’t be much of a test if you’re in a well-lit ham shack, surrounded by $30,000 of top of the line equipment feeding several computers and a couple humongous antennas up on 100 foot towers. The challenge is to get as close to nothing equipment wise and still collect information (by listening) and get your message out as best you can. This means probably using your mobile rig on low power running directly off some old car battery that might die in the next 15 minutes. This means using an antenna slapped together from junk salvaged from the trash heap. For added points, try doing it in the dark, and cold, while it’s snowing/raining with the wind howling, while wearing a leg splint and an arm sling, and an eye patch. And your neighbor’s daughter is having her baby a little early due to the storm. And the looters are just starting to come up the street. Just to make it fun. There, now you have your hands full. That’s why you do this.
Thing is, most ham radio operators, under normal, sunny-day conditions, are more interested in making contact with one of those tiny pacific islands, or McMurdo Station, or Tierra Del Fuego, or just about anywhere besides someone local within a 100 mile radius, that might be available, or that might know someone else that is available, to help with your difficult situation during the current emergency. Always nice to chat with the fine folks down at McMurdo Station (or even the International Space Station), but they ain’t coming by to help you get your emergency generator running any time soon. But now, old Jim Bob, that hayseed over in the next county that sold you his black rifle cause it’s just too finicky for him to keep around the farm, just might. Remember, he’s got an antenna on every truck he owns and on a couple of his tractors. How often do you make radio contact with him?
So now that you’re trying to figure this all out, here are some useful resources to look at to gauge what the communications conditions are. Might save you from wasting 20 minutes on a frequency that is totally useless this time of day. Just remember, this works a lot like fish finders. Sure, the fish are out there. Just doesn’t mean they’ll bite.
First stop, check CONUS HF BAND CONX. Breaks down the HF band conditions and updates every couple minutes. A rough indication where people might be listening on their radios.
Next, you should look at the F-2 layer propagation map because you will be using an NVIS antenna and that signal you’re shooting straight up needs to make it right back down.
And just maybe, you’ve worked on developing your skills at digital modes, for just such an emergency where you have low power, high noise and bad band conditions coupled with crappy makeshift gear while wearing gloves and an eye pad.
Some place to help you with that is another “Old Guy”, W1HKJ. Has just enough info to get you started and going crazy with digital. The best is the “Sights & Sounds of Digital Modes“, where you can hear sample transmissions, and read about the up and down sides of those various modes. So start your homework now while the sun is out and the power is still on. There’s no guarantees how long that will last.