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Emergency Communications

In this modern day and age, we take electronic communication for granted. Imagine being plunged into a world were there are no phones, cellphones, internet, email, television or even radio. Back in the day when I served aboard ships, we called that being underway.

Way, way back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, those that served at sea were at the mercy of the Fleet Post Office.  I will say, the FPO did a very good job routing the mail to the appropriate place, however, sometimes weeks or even a month would go by without mail.  When the mail finally did arrive, it all smelled the same.  Everyone’s wife or girl friend put some sort of scent on the outgoing, but since those letters mingled tightly packed in the same bag for weeks, often in hot humid tropical Pacific air, those scents blended together and became the Westpac Mail Smell, which permeated everything, even the letters from my father.

What will happen if people can’t sign on Facebook?

Fortune favors the prepared.

Communications loss in ordinary circumstances

Loss of utility company power, phone service and internet service can happen at any time for a variety of reasons.  The worst case scenario will occur when such loss is coupled with a natural disaster, which are often a major disruption of normal life.  Loss of information, especially at critical moments, can make a bad situation much worse.  In a situation where all normal means of communication are not functioning, something will fill that void, most likely the rumor mill.  That could be bad.

For information gathering, there are many options.  A good AM/FM shortwave radio is a decent start.  I would recommend a quality shortwave radio that has AM/USB/LSB options.  During run of the mill storms and power outages, many radio stations will remain on the air with emergency generators.  The key is to figure out which stations are staffed and offer good timely information.  NOAA all hazards radio can be good source of weather information, however, their transmitters can remain off the air for weeks or months at times.

One might ask “Isn’t this overkill or alarmist?”  I suppose that depends.  In the December 2007 ice storm, we had no power for seven days. In the aftermath of several major Northeast hurricanes and winter storms, some people had no power for more than two weeks.  Not only no power, but no cable, phone or internet either.  In situations like that, having some form of connection to the outside world can make a big difference.

Communications loss in less than ordinary situations

Other situations and scenarios may require more effort.  Prolonged information shortages could be triggered any number of national or global situations.  Shortwave receivers are not only for listening to international broadcast stations but also for tuning into the amateur radio (AKA “Ham”) frequencies as well.  Amateur radio is often used for emergency communications on a local and national and international level by governments and the Red Cross when other systems are out.  National and international communications are often heard on the HF band; 3-30 MHz.  The Amateur radio primary emergency voice nets are:

  • 3791.0 USB VOICE PRIMARY International, DX, and Emergency/Disaster Relief
  • 5371.5 USB EMERGENCY Emergency/Disaster Relief
  • 5403.5 USB EMERGENCY Emergency/Disaster Relief
  • 7185.5 USB VOICE PRIMARY International/Regional and Emergency/Disaster Relief
  • 14346.0 USB VOICE PRIMARY International/Regional and Emergency/Disaster Relief
  • 18117.5 USB VOICE PRIMARY International/Regional and Emergency/Disaster Relief
  • 21432.5 USB VOICE PRIMARY International/Regional and Emergency/Disaster Relief
  • 24932.0 USB VOICE PRIMARY International/Regional and Emergency/Disaster Relief
  • 28312.5 USB VOICE PRIMARY International/Regional and Emergency/Disaster Relief

These are voice channels from the ALE website. If there is not traffic on these frequencies, tune around a little bit.  In addition to voice nets, the amateurs also use something called ALE, which stands for automatic link establishment.  This is a data system that can be decoded on a listen only basis with a computer and some free software, for those so inclined.

For local amateur communications, 2 meter and 70 cm repeaters are often pressed into service.  For those, a VHF/UHF scanner is required.  Get a trunking scanner for 800 MHz police/fire dispatch as well.  Make sure that all radios can operate on 12 volts DC.  For this application, the size of the solar panel and battery is moderate, as receivers do not use much current.

Another option is a wide band USB radio for a lap top computer like a WinRadio WR-G315e.  These devices can be power by the USB outlet on the computer while the computer itself is charged with a solar panel.  For this route, some research on lap top solar chargers is needed.  The DC power requirements vary from lap top to lap top, so I can only offer general advice here.

With any receiver, a good antenna will greatly improve performance.  If there is room for an outdoor antenna, any length of wire strung up in a tree, away from power lines will work well.  For indoor setups, some type of receiving loop will work best.

Prolonged loss of communications in extraordinary circumstances

For longer term situations, gaining access to vital information and communications may become more problematic.  First of all, electronic communications require electricity.  Long term disruptions to the electrical distribution system could occur by either natural or man made events.  When those events happen, those that are prepared will be in a better position to survive if not thrive.  Things like ad hoc computer networks and amateur radio can facilitate two way communications.  In order to use amateur radio, one needs to get a license first.  This is a pretty easy thing to do and most other amateur radio operators won’t talk to you without a valid call sign.  Not only will they not talk to you, they will likely track you down and report you to the FCC.  That is the nature of the hobby, like it or don’t.

Amateur radio set ups can be very simple and not terribly expensive.  An used HF radio can be purchased on eBay for a moderate sum.  A simple multiband vertical antenna will serve general purposes.  For those that are interested in HF Link, a newer radio will work better.

Wireless ad hoc computer networks can be set up to establish a quasi internet over a moderate sized area.  WiFi WAN networks can be locally established using 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz, 5.8 GHz and 24 GHz license free channels.  Depending on the frequency, those links can be used for point to point medium to long haul links, or to establish local links to laptops and wireless devices:

  • 900 MHz: lower speed data rates, long haul, good to moderate building and vegetation penetration
  • 2.4 GHz: Limited channel availability, high atmospheric absorption, moderate speeds, low vegetation and building penetration
  • 5.8 GHz: High number of channels available, potential interference issue with TDWR radar systems, moderate to high speeds, line of sight only
  • 24 GHz: Large bandwidth, high speed, point to point back haul, line of sight only

Once the information is obtained, distribution to the greater public becomes a problem.  A very simple webserver (Apache, Nginx) with a light weight, simple index page containing vital information, news, weather, etc can be set up on a laptop and all HTTP traffic directed to the default index page.  This type of set up could be run off of a battery charged by a solar panel.  The issue here would be obtaining the information to put on the web page.

The Gates Air Flexiva 1

We just finished installing one of these units for one of our clients. This is the third one that I have dealt with in the last two years. I have to say, these transmitters are pretty cool.

Gate Air, Flexiva 1 running at 990 watts

Gate Air, Flexiva 1 running at 990 watts

We also installed a 7/8 transfer switch and a 1.5 KW test load:

New installation of transmitter, transfer switch and test load

New installation of transmitter, transfer switch and test load

Another view:

Transmitter installation

Transmitter installation

New transmitter rack, processor and remote control:

New transmitter installation

New transmitter installation

The former main transmitter, the venerable BE FM1B:

Broadcast Electronics FM1B transmitter

Broadcast Electronics FM1B transmitter

View of the 7/8 inch coax going out of the transmitter room to the tower:

Coax out to tower

Coax out to tower

Rarely, if ever, have I worked with 7/8 rigid transmission line. Usually, it is 1 5/8 or 3 inch line, which require some amount of patience when installing.

Nice little transmitter site upgrade project.

Out storming castles and what not

Sorry for not posting more, it just seems that most of what I am doing these days has already been covered here before. I don’t like repeating myself.  I certainly have been busy with all things related to radio engineering, including a few cool project in the works.  More details on those as they come to fruition; a couple of more transmitter installations, a cool studio installation with AOIP hardware, etc.

Even though I have not mentioned it, certain things have not escaped my attention:

  • The on going financial problems/stock crash of Cumulus Broadcasting.  TL,DR; bad decisions made, lots of people left, content still matters.
  • AM revitalization:  Band aides (no pun intended) at best, far too late for band aides.
  • HD Radio: Crickets chirping…
  • Nielsen: PPM software upgrades have arrived and been installed.  Goodbye, Voltair?

When I have the chance, there is also a cool story about an LPFM going on the air in Rochester.  Stay tuned.

I love this

Somebody sent me a link to this video, I thought I’d share:

The inglorious task of AM antenna array maintenance

AM radio stations are rough customers. They frequently operate on the margins, both in terms of ratings and revenue. Their transmitter plants are complex and very often have been on a reduced maintenance schedule for years, sometimes decades.  Those of us that understand the operation of AM transmitter plants and all their quirky behaviours are getting older.  I myself, feel less inclined to drop everything and run off to the AM transmitter site when things go awry.  Seldom are such efforts rewarded, much less acknowledged.  Station owners are also finding that their previous demands are unrealistic.  For example, time was that any work that takes the station off the air had to be done after midnight.  These days, I can tell you, I will not be working at your radio station after midnight.  You can find somebody else to do that work.

Thus, today, we took this particular AM station off the air from Noon until 3 pm to diagnose and repair a problem with the four tower daytime array.  Once again, this involved a shift in common point impedance and a drastic change in one tower’s current ratios.

Antenna Tuning Unit, mice have made a mess

Antenna Tuning Unit, mice have made a mess

In all fairness to the current owner, this ATU reflects years of neglect. At some point, mice made a home in here and created a mess. The ATU smells of mouse shit, piss and mothballs.  It is full of mouse droppings, grass seeds and fur.  All of the ATUs in this array are in similar condition.

Paper wasp, inside ATU

Paper wasp, inside ATU

It was warm enough that the wasps were active, if not a little bit lethargic.

Broken stand off insulators in ATU

Broken stand off insulators in ATU

This coil is being held up by the tubing that connects it to other components. When the ATU was built, no nylon or cork bushings were used between the insulators and the wall of the ATU they were mounted on. Heat cycling eventually did all of the insulators in.

Catwalk to the other towers

Catwalk to the other towers

Catwalks to the other towers. At least the swamp grass has been cut this year, it is only four feet tall instead of ten.

Tower base

Tower base

The tower bases are all elevated above the theoretical maximum water level. The ATUs are also up on stands with platforms build for maintenance access.

ATU Work "platform"

ATU Work “platform”

I cannot even blame the current owner, who has spend considerable money to make repairs and upgrades to this site. It is very difficult and very expensive to catch up with deferred maintenance. Sadly, most AM stations we encounter have similar or worse problems.

I think it is too late to save many of these AM stations.  The technical issues, lack of revenue, perceived poor quality, lack of good programming are all taking their toll.  At this point, the hole is so deep there is no hope of ever getting out.  The FCC’s faux interest in “revitalization” followed by two years of stony indifference seems to be a final, cruel joke.

Microsoft: I am so done with you…

Except for the two applications that only run in Windows…

I lost use of my Windows 7 partition on my laptop last week after a Windows update.  They have been pushing Windows 10 for a while now, but I have ignored it because Windows 7 is just fine for me. I tried to ignore the latest nagging update and: Oh, joy! Computer stuck in an endless reboot loop. Fortunately, I had a dual boot system and the Linux OS booted right up. Go figure! I was able to mount the the Windows partition from Linux and recover all of my files.  This is a good reason to have a dual boot system, or keep a bootable thumb drive handy.  At first, I thought I might be loosing sectors on my hard drive, but no.  It turns out, one of the files changed during the update was corrupted.  No big deal, I can reload windows and be back in business.

It will only take an hour or so.  An hour that could be better used for something else, something akin to billable hours, which is how the mortgage gets paid. My computer is not a hobby, it is a tool. I don’t have time to play around with things for fun.

Then I thought, why bother?  I am using Linux with no serious disruptions.  In fact, it boots faster, runs faster, is more secure, and generally has fewer hangups. LibreOffice has all of the applications I need for general correspondence and business administration.  I can run Win 7 as a virtual machine in VirtualBox as long as I can get the USB device I need to be recognized by Linux then passed through to the virtual Win 7 OS.

So, to hell with Windows and all its nonsense. Goodbye you inferior, expensive and buggy piece of garbage. I will not miss you.

North Adams tower update III

And final.

It has been a year and a half since the tower collapse in North Adams, Massachusetts.  Since that time, WUPE-FM (Gamma Broadcasting), WNNI and W266AW (New England Public Radio) have been operating with STAs at lower than licensed power.   We have completed the installation of the combined antenna, filters and combiners and now all stations are back to full power.  Here are a few pictures of the transmitter room:

WUPE-FM and WNNI transmitter racks, North Adams, MA

WUPE-FM and WNNI transmitter racks, North Adams, MA

WUPE-FM (left hand rack) is using a Crown FM-2000 transmitter, loafing along at 1,060 watts. WNNI (right hand rack) is using a Gates Air Flexiva 2 running at 1,650 watts. Those stations are combined with a Shively Combiner:

Shively combiner

Shively 2 way star junction combiner

We are still doing some grounding and neatening work behind the racks:

Behind racks

Behind racks

The Shively versa tune antennas that were mounted to the wooden utility pole as emergency antennas will be retained as backup antennas for both stations.

Transmitters for WUPE, WNNI and W266AW

Transmitters for WUPE, WNNI and W266AW

We share the room with Access Plus, which is a wireless internet service provider in western Massachusetts. There stuff is in the open frame racks to the right of WNNI.

Another view:

Transmitter racks for WUPE-FM, WNNI and W266AW

Transmitter racks for WUPE-FM, WNNI and W266AW

TL;DR: Tower collaspes, facility is rebuilt better than before.

Radio is dead? Don’t tell these guys then…

WXHC in Homer, New York will never be listed on the NY Stock Exchange. Is that bad?

WXHC, Homer, New York

WXHC, Homer, New York

They don’t think so. A small class A FM station, one of many that signed on in the early 1990’s as part of the 80-90 drop ins (FCC docket 80-90, for those unfamiliar). Many of these stations did not fair too well and ended up being absorbed by larger stations and groups starting with the first wave of ownership deregulation in 1993.

WHXC has remained under the same ownership since it signed on in 1991. Eves Broadcasting is a family operation, employing maybe half a dozen people. Their studios and offices are on the third floor of the Bank of Niagara right in the center of town.  The facility is very nice.  Like any successful radio station, their focus is the community they serve. The format is “Oldies” but they also broadcast high school football, Syracuse sports and so on. They host a yearly Blue Grass festival on the village green.

WXHC air studio

WXHC air studio

The air studio has an Arrakis console and uses BSI Simian automation software. They have live DJ’s from 6am to 6pm, local news, weather, sports, etc.

WXHC production room console

WXHC production room console

The production room has a BE Spotmaster 8S200A console from 1978. Aside from needing some power supply capacitors, it still works relatively well.  However, as the owner’s son said; that thing belongs in a museum.

BE Spotmaster line input card

BE Spotmaster line input card

BE Spotmaster line input card. Probably can still get all these parts if we wanted to.

I forgot to take pictures of the transmitter site when I was there.  Next time.

We will be working on several projects for these folks, so I will keep  you posted on the progress.

As my Russian friends say:

Political Warning! Turn away now if you wish to remain blissfuly ignorent.

На сей раз Путин прав.

Who do you think you're foolin' with?

Who do you think you’re foolin’ with?

For those of you who don’t govoroo pa Rooski (speak in Russian), it says: Na sey raz Putin prav.

What, specifically, is he right about? Syria: Who caused it, the resulting humanitarian crisis, the refugees in Europe, and so on. Also, the question: What is the difference between a moderate rebel and an immoderate one? Well… Starting with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US involvement in the region has been either grossly incompetent or blatantly evil or perhaps a combination of the two. Remember the humanitarian bombs in Libya? The opening salvo of 138 tomahawk missiles ($1.2M each)? To be sure, Muammar Gaddafi was no saint, but compared to the people who are running Libya now, he was Ma Teresa.

The US has spent approximately $500M training these “moderate rebels,” but according to the CENTCOM commander, number only “four or five.”  They are just pissing away money and our kids are going to have to pay it back.  When will somebody stand up and ask: What the hell is going on around here?

By the way; Путин не мой герой, which makes it even sadder still.

Dun Dun DUN!

UPDATE:Turns out it was nothing…

Hurricane Joaquin, 1800 UTC, October 3, 2015

National Weather Service, Hurricane Joaquin, October 3, 1800 UTC

Could be something. It might be nothing. Better top of the fuel tanks just in case…

National Weather Service, Hurricane Joaquin, September 30, 1800 UTC

National Weather Service, Hurricane Joaquin, September 30, 1800 UTC

On top of all the other scheduled projects taking place, we have a bad generator fuel transfer pump at one of the E911 sites that should be replaced before Monday, apparently.