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Outside the county
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SJC EMCOMM Freqs
SJC1 - 147.210 + 114.8 Stockton (Stockton Pri)
SJC2 - 146.655 - 100.0 Tracy (County Pri)
SJC3 - 145.210 - 100.0 Tracy (County B/up)
SJC4 - 147.090 + 114.8 Lodi (North Pri)
SJC5 - 146.985 - 100.0 Manteca
SJC6 - 147.165 + 107.2 SDARC
SJC7 - 147.015 + 114.8 Copperopolis
SJC8 - 147.105 + 94.8 Stockton
SJC9 - 146.895 - 114.8 Mt. Oso - Disabled
SJC10 - 444.400 + 114.8 Copperopolis
SJC11 - 444.325 + 94.8 Stockton (Stockton Pri)
SJC12 - 443.825 + 107.2 Mt. Oso
SJC13 - 444.575 + 107.2 Stockton
SJC14 - 444.850 + 114.8 127.3 Tracy 
SJC15 - 444.500 + 114.8 Stockton
LLNL - 146.775 - 100.0 Livermore


TAC1 - 146.550

TAC3 - 146.535
TAC4 - 146.430
TAC6 - 156.565
TAC7 - 146.595
TAC8 - 146.445
All simplex
Disclaimer

Opinions expressed are my own. I hope they are useful, but policies and procedures vary widely from one location and group to another.

What I describe may not work for you and may even be unsafe. Always follow your local policies and procedures!

Also, unless specifically mentioned, this site is about VHF/UHF operations and not HF, which is very often different for very good reasons.

Search this Site
N5FDL/CEVOL Repeaters

Stockton: 147.210 + N5FDL and 444.500 + K6TRK Both PL 114.8 (linked)

Copperopolis/Gopher Ridge: 147.015 + and 444.400 + N5FDL UHF is Yaesu System Fusion analog and digital — tone on analog only

Mt. Oso: 146.895 - N5FDL and 443.825 + PL 107.2 (not linked)

Tracy: 444.850 + KB6EMK PL 127.3

Affiliated Repeaters

Bear Mtn.: 146.090 + and 444.250 + WB6ASU Both PL 114.8 (linked)

Mt. Delux: 145.210 - PL 100.0 WA6SEK (10mi S of Tracy)

All repeaters are open to all users.

Monday
Jan062014

Chip Problem Kills Wouxun Memory?

Here is very troubling news from the Wouxun_KG-UVD1 Yahoo Group:

“It has been reported that ALL Wouxun HTs have an issue with their NVRAM chips. Many units have failed to hold their settings, due to a poor quality chip. If your radio loses its settings, defaults to Chinese language, etc. It is this bug.

“All radios have this chip, and are susceptible to eventually developing this issue.

“As our radios age, they will become more likely to develop this bug.

“Hopefully other Chinese radios do not have this chip, otherwise they could become truly disposable, as the naysayers comment.”

Although I own two Wouxuns, I have been reluctant to recommend them. I thought there were enough of them in the world to assure us that they actually work. I cannot personally confirm this, but there is enough discussion that something must be going on.

 

I am no longer able to recommend Wouxun radios, pending some positive outcome here. My recommended radios are now the trusty Yaesu FT-60 dual-bander and the FT-270 2m-only radio.
Friday
Jan032014

Ham EMCOMM Planning and the ICS-217

After posting the 2014 frequency plan on Wednesday, I received an email from an emergency communicator asking why the plan isn’t presented on an ICS-217 form, normally used for listing communications resources available for potential use. Here’s the letter:

Thanks for your recent blog entry on EMCOMM/AUXCOMM Frequency Planning.  It’s well-written and has quite a number of useful ideas.

I’m the EC for four counties in Mississippi (Bolivar, Washington, Sunflower, Leflore).  We have a very sparse Amateur population here, with about 15 active stations scattered over those counties.  A couple of years ago, I put together a similar plan, which you can find here.

I wondered, is there a reason your plan is not drafted in an ICS-217 format?  I come from a public safety/emergency management background, so ICS is second nature to me.  The 217 is a Communication Unit Leader/s (COML) “scratchpad” from which he can cut-and-paste data into an Incident Communications Plan (ICS-205 form).  The 217 and your format are very similar, and I was just curious if there was (or wasn’t) a reason for not using a 217?  I opted to put ours on a 217 so we could easily transfer the data to our local emergency managers during an event, if needed.

Happy New Year from the Magnolia State!  

73, Jim ~ K5JAW

Here’s how I responded:

As a communications unit leader (COML), I appreciate the value and usage of a 217. The challenge is that the descriptive and coverage info that is vital to selecting the right Amateur frequency for the right usage at the right time at the right place doesn’t have a place on a standard 217. 

Further, it requires some specialized knowledge to handle the “who owns and uses what” aspect of repeaters. Ham radio is not public safety radio, especially for urban HT coverage. 

I do find it useful to draft pre-need ICS-205 radio plans for various locations in the county. That makes it easy to plan for HT coverage as part of every 205. I’m not sure how that would fit into an ICS-217. 

I have posted an image of an ICS-217. And one of a draft pre-need ICS-205. You can click on the images to see a full-sized version.

Expanding upon my answer to Jim, my experience has primarily been doing EMCOMM for agencies where we don’t use the ICS-217 and rely on the ICS-205 instead. We use a limited set of frequencies and one radio plan is likely to be very much like all the others. In fact, I think I was in communications unit leader (COML) class before I actually saw a 217, which is often not included in sets of ICS forms.

Unlike public safety radio. where coverage, ownership and prior usage aren’t major concerns when selecting frequencies, someone with an ICS-217 and no understanding of what the form doesn’t say could really mess up Amateur Radio EMCOMM. Which is why I have resisted doing one.

ICS was not created with volunteer communicators or even radio in mind, so having to workaround some aspects shouldn’t come as a surprise. I may do an ICS-217 for the core of the plan, but I may not make it widely available. Fewer mistakes that way.

Also — and this is important — this is not just a frequency usage plan, but also a radio programming plan. It describes how radio memory channels should be filled. It is intended for day-to-day and emergency use.

For me, the most important benefit of the plan is having radios all programmed alike, especially those at shared locations and those owned by new or less-active hams. 

Meanwhile, stay tuned for a future discussion of the ICS-201 General Message form.

Thursday
Jan022014

How to Develop an EMCOMM/AUXCOM Frequency Plan

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in your ARES/RACES group had his or her radio programmed the same as everyone else? Then you could count on everyone—even the newcomers—being able to get on a particular repeater or simplex frequency in the hurry during an exercise or emergency.

Net control could tell them to tune to a particular channel number or name, just like the public safety agencies do, rather than announcing a frequency, perhaps repeated two or three times, along with an offset and a PL tone. Followed by instructions on radio programming, no doubt.

My EMCOMM group has a large number of inexperienced hams and, frankly, I wanted to create a plan that would be as hard to screw-up as possible. I needed a fail-safe want to get everyone on the proper frequency in a hurry.

This is an update to the very first post to this blog. Read the original 2008 version.

In order to standardize the radios and make their operation easier for everyone, in 2006, I developed a frequency plan for what was then county’s ARES group. In 2008, I made it available for adoption by the general ham population.

This document—then called the San Joaquin County ARES VHF Frequency Plan—originally included 58 channels. That may sound like a lot for a county of less than 675,000 residents, but at that time 15 channels were mission critical. The other channels included 18 regional frequencies and all two-meter simplex frequencies, which added the remaining 25 channels.

The plan has grown to 105 channels, including some open channels reserved for future use. It is now in its seventh major iteration. UHF channels are now part of the plan.

I keep hoping the plan will stop needing revisions, but we’ve been adding repeaters and want them included in the plan. We have also slightly changed naming conventions over the years, although the most important frequencies are still in the same memory channels they have always been in. 

Not Just VHF Anymore

People have asked why there were no UHF frequencies in the original plan. Mostly because of ham interference to PAVE PAWS, the government over-the-horizon radar system that shares our frequencies.

In an emergency the first voice on our 2-meter hospital net is more likely to be an unlicensed nurse than an experienced ham. Let’s help her.

Located at Beale AFB, north of Sacramento, the radar has forced big changes in our area’s UHF repeater line-up. Our county did not have many UHF systems at the time the plan was started and the future of the 440 MHz band was in doubt.

The plan was also VHF-only so that, and this may be a good enough reason by itself, new hams could purchase an inexpensive radio. At the time we were standardizing on Yaesu VX-170 talkies for about $130 each. Our current standard, the FT-60, was $190 at the time, but is now in the $140 range.

The Yaesu VX-170 is a near perfect radio for emergency responders who only need one band. It’s submersible, rugged, easy to use, and the AA-battery pack will fully power its 5-watt transmitter. 

Beginning with the sixth edition, it was no longer a VHF-only plan, although the key channels remain VHF repeaters, primarily for coverage but also for compatibility with the VHF-only talkies we formerly recommended to new hams.

Why no UHF earlier? When the plan originated, 440 MHz ham interference to the PAVE PAWS over-the-horizon radar located north of Sacramento had forced many UHF repeaters to either dramatically reduce power and cease operation altogether.

It was not clear in 2006 whether UHF would ever be useful again. Over the past two years, however, many low-level machines have arrived to replace the larger machines. As those machines have gone on-the-air they have been added to the plan. Likewise, a few new 2-meter repeaters.

Keeping Users Happy

The first thing I realized as the project took shape was that nobody wants someone telling him or her what to program into their personal radio equipment. It’s OK for me to program hospital and served agency radios, but I wanted to have the plan loaded into as many radios as possible. Ease of adoption by the amateur community became very important.

Don’t sacrifice your plan, but keep users happy. Give them as many open channels as they need and then stick to your guns.

For that reason, I left the first 20 channels open for customization by the user. This allowed users to place their favorite repeaters in the first channels where they are easy to find and use.

My channel “load” thus begins on Channel 21. It could just as easily begin on 121, 221, 321, etc., given the large number of memories available in many radios. One of my scanners is programmed this way, with the frequency plan starting on channel 221. As long as the last two digits of the channel number match the plan, I’m happy and the plan remains easy to use.

What’s in the Plan

If you want to know what used to be in the plan, read the 2008 post. Here is what we are using today:

Channels 1-20 — As noted, the user is free to put anything into these channels. But, many want them preprogrammed and I am happy to oblige.

These 20 channels are, essentially, a copy of Channels 21-40, only with user-friendly names for each channel. For example, Channel 2 is TRACY while 22 is SJC2, a tactical name for the same repeater. The tactical names are permanently assigned to the frequency pair, while the friendly name changes if the repeater should move or change callsigns, depending on what we are using as a friendly name.

Channels 21-50 — There are the “core” channels of the plan and are intended to be programmed into as many radios as possible. Included are:

  • 21-35 — SJC1-SJC15 are local repeaters. This includes a number of repeaters brought into operation since the 2008 plan was issued. Our goal has been to achieve handie-talkie coverage everywhere in the county and we are getting close.
  • 36 — CALL is 146.520, the national calling channel
  • 37 — REDX is 147.420, often used by Red Cross groups.
  • 38-43 — TAC1-TAC8 are six simplex channels. Two have been removed due to interference. Numbers remained the same.
  • 44 — LLNL is a repeater at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that is linked to SJC2.
  • 45 — WINSYS is 443.525, a local repeater connected to the WIN System network. It is there as a “guard” channel where users are likely to find help 24/7/365. This was just added.
  • 46-48 — Three vacant channels are reserved.
  • 49 — TAC-U is a portable UHF repeater.
  • 50 — WX is the local NOAA weather radio. 

All simplex frequencies in the plan encode a 100 Hz. PL tone. we are not set to decode it, but could do so if needed. It also helps identify radios programmed with our plan. We use tone encode/decode on repeaters, when possible, to reduce interference.

Channels 21-50 are the core of the plan. Everything else is optional, though recommended.

Channels 51-70 — Next come the regional mutual aid channels. Loaded into memories 51-68, these are repeaters in nearby counties. Channels 69-80 are vacant. They are not a required part of the plan, just nice to have if enough memory is free.

Channels 71-80, new this year, are packet channels for Winlink and APRS.

Channels 81-105 — All simplex channels from the local band plan, which we use for training and compatibility.

Channel 109 — New: I placed a version marker there. The marker is the channel name. The frequency must to VHF to be copied into VHF-only radios. I set this up at 146.520, the national calling frequency, with PL encode/decode of 67 Hz. that should keep the channel quiet. I also set this for low power.

Channels 110 and beyond — I have included San Joaquin Fire channels as well as more WIN System channels. These are optional.

For users who want them, I also program local public safety and WIN System frequencies. Here for downloading is a PDF of what gets programmed into an FT-60 handheld. It is the model for all the dual-band frequency loads.

Lessons Learned

Before wrapping up, here are some things I learned before/during/after drafting the frequency plan. But first, the most important lesson: Compatibility is King!

In the first version of the plan I did not think ahead. How could I guess that I’d put up six repeaters myself and other people would launch two more that needed to be included? That forced changes over time.

Mindful that some talkies have only 128 channels, I recommend creating blocks of channels, as now exist in my plan. Leave empty “reserved” channels as part of each block for future expansion. 

Fortunately, we have been using the same primary repeaters throughout this process. While they have new names (ARES2 became SJC2, for example), they are still in the same memory channels.

Remember that VHF-only radios will end up with empty channels where your UHF channels are programmed into dual-band radios. Accept this and leave the channels blank. Better for VHF users not to have SJC15 than to find something else programmed into its memory channel.

Before:

  • Does a plan already exist? – If so, try to make the current plan work or at least use it as a starting point for a new plan.
  • Are you the right person to create a new plan? – You need at least a constituency and, ideally, an official position (or several) to begin this process. If not, you’re likely to end up with a great plan that nobody uses. In my case, necessity became the mother of invention.
  • Do your research – Absent an existing plan, what frequencies are being used already? Get lists from clubs and served agencies. I started with a list from California OES for my region.
  • Don’t expect your plan to take mere weeks to complete. And once it is completed, let it age a little, then go back and make changes before releasing it. Give select friends draft copies of the plan—clearly marked as such. Plans have living documents, but you don’t want to change too often.

Drafting a Plan

  • Everything that anyone already uses needs to be included in the plan. Make a list of these frequencies and who uses them. Invite everyone to take part in creating the plan. You need as many endorsers (and eventual users) as possible. The idea is to include people, not exclude them. 
  • Make sure you have extra simplex channels designated in your plan. Pick a PL and encode it on all your simplex channels.
  • Don’t make mistakes. At least, don’t make big ones, like the PL tones of your local repeaters or (as I did) including 146.580 as a simplex voice channel when the bandplan places digital users there.
  • Check coverage to see what can be hit from where. Document this in the plan notes.
  • Ask for permission. Local repeater owners are key supporters. Establish Memorandums of Understanding with them, if appropriate. At the same time, include frequency that it makes sense to include. One local group was not wild about having their repeater included, thinking my group wanted to hijack their machine during an emergency. They eventually got over it. Remember: Having a frequency in the plan does not mean you have to or even plan to use it. This is a plan for emergencies, though is can also make sure everyone can talk to everyone else.
  • Having said that, I could not include closed repeater systems or any where your users would not be welcome.
  • Include version notes, known issues, planned changes, etc. in the “paper” versions of your plan. A change history would be nice. I should have kept one, though I still could reconstruct one from the zillions of copies of old plans that live on my hard drive.
  • This is new for me this year: Add a channel where its name will be the Version number of the plan that is installed in that radio. I added this on Channel 109. See below for details.
  • Build a plan with the expectation it will have to last for many years.
  • Though it is counterintuitive, doing a plan with tactical identifiers allows users to be sent to channels without having to know what is there. Several repeaters moved and had their “friendly” names changed, but they are still the same SJC channels as always. 
  • Leaving 20 user option channels has been enough, but filling them with local repeaters identified by their friendly names — usually a location or callsign — is a good idea.
  • Leave plenty of vacant channels in your plan so that you can add new channels are needed. NEVER remove a frequency or change what is on a channel if it can be helped. This created incompatibilities between different versions of the plan.

Afterward:

  • Expect to spend forever promoting your plan. Get official endorsement wherever and whenever possible.
  • Defend your plan from adulteration. In my plan, having a set of repeater channels with “friendly” names means people don’t have to memorize what each SJC-named channel contains.
  • Compromise, a bit. In most cases, your plan can move to higher channels to create room below. If necessary, beginning your plan ‘up” 100 channels when necessary makes your plan channels easier to find. 
  • Don’t make changes if you can help it. I’d rather add a channel (remember the empty spaces between groups?) than change or remove an existing channel. Try to make the plan grow rather than remove things. This creates compatibility issues with radios lacking the most current version of the plan.
  • Make programming files available for popular radios. I am starting to do this for a variety of mobile and portable radios. I also keep programming software for popular radios on my laptop and carry cables with me, so I can program radios for people whenever I’m asked to do so.
  • Always carry a laptop loaded with programming software and all the necessary files. Program as many radios as possible.

Obviously, I think it’s useful for EMCOMM/AUXCOM groups to promote a frequency plan such as this. I hope the concepts presented will work for your group and look forward to your comments and questions—so I can make my own plan better.

131221 8-0 SJCFD WINSYSTEM.VX170
Wednesday
Jan012014

Introducing the 2014 CEVOL EMCOMM Frequency Plan

Today, I am releasing the official 2014 CEVOL EMCOMM Frequency Plan for San Joaquin County. The plan is available as a PDF for viewing and Excel and CSV files for importing into radio programming applications. There are also some radio programming files now available and more will be added.

This plan has several changes from the last 2013 version and it is recommended that everyone update their radios to this version. Note that there is now a version number that appears as channel 109. This is version V80. 

Good news: With all the repeaters now installed and all but one coordinated, this should be a stable plan for the foreseeable future. (I hear the disbelief now).

Visit the 2014 CEVOL San Joaquin County Frequency Plan 

Monday
Dec302013

The Heartbreak of APRS

For more than 20 years, I have been trying to do something useful with APRS, the automatic position reporting system. This is a packet radio technology for transmitting your location, as well as short messages. New hams see the demonstrations, perhaps see their location displayed on aprs.fi, and the hook is set.

Next, they want to use APRS to do things like track the mobiles assigned to support a 50-mile bicycle ride. Maybe they try it, only to later realize the lure of APRS is often just a siren song, drawing you toward the rocks of disappointment. At least, that’s what it’s been for me.

Why is this?

Because APRS, as it exists today, is a fun toy, but (sadly) not much more. There are reasons for this that can be changed more or less easily and some that are pretty difficult to change.

In the scenario described, one or more hams want to track the support (sag) vehicles participating in a bicycle event. The idea is to be able to track the vehicles’ position so that the closest support can be sent to reports of trouble.

That means we have a vehicle that probably usually occupied by a ham. The vehicle needs an operator and the ability to communicate over voice and packet simultaneously. It’s the simultaneously part that is usually the trouble. That, and needing a higher transmitter for packet.

The big mistake is using the talkie for packet and the mobile radio for voice, rather than vice versa.

Let me preface this by saying I am talking about APRS in my area and what I say may not totally apply in your region. But, I’ll bet a lot of it does. For example:

  • Packet is essentially a single-frequency system, 144.390 nationwide. That means every APRS user is battling it out with all the other users in an area, plus the APRS digipeaters that retransmit signals. While an APRS packet burst is fairly quick, it’s not quick enough when there are a number of users and digis all transmitting more or less at once.
  • “Professional” uses — by which I mean situations where successful APRS is important to the success your emcomm work — require most transmitted packets to go through. If you are driving on vacation, APRS needs to provide only a rough estimation of your location. But, if you have three mobiles and need to dispatch the closest one to a stranded bicyclist, you need to know where they are almost exactly.
  • People want to use the cute-but-expensive APRS handie-talkies without realizing that 5-watts is fun to play with, but not very useful. Want to use the talkie? Buy an amp for it. If you really need APRS, you probably need 35 to 50-watts transmit power. This makes APRS hard to drop into a vehicle on short notice. (I have an amp and a battery in a bag, connected to a mag mount antenna for this application).

Consider the challenge of five mobiles supporting a bicycle ride. If the mobiles are traveling an average of 30 miles-per-hour, they are covering a mile every two minutes. If you transmit a packet every 30 seconds, your position should be accurate to a quarter-mile in any direction, so you really have a half-mile circle.

The worst thing that has happened to APRS is the development of low-power talkies and trackers, which generally lack the power to do the job. 

But that presumes your packet isn’t jammed by another being transmitted at the same time or that terrain doesn’t block your signal. Add those obstacles, and you may be lucky to see a location report every five minutes. But let’s be optimistic and say two minutes. That makes your position accurate to within a mile. In some applications, that’s fine but in others — where more speed is involved — the distances increase. At 60 miles-per-hour, two minutes equals two miles. Five minutes equals five miles. And this is a circle, since the mobile may have reversed course.

But, the worst thing that has happened to APRS is the development of low-power trackers, which generally lack the power to do the job. They may also transmit without listening, making interference worse. I am aware that some people use these successfully, though I’ve only done it once and that was at a miniature railway where the total distance was about a mile of track. And no digipeater was involved.

What I’ve Learned

In our area, repeaters and digipeaters tend to be located “in the hills,” typically placing them 20-40 miles from most users. The APRS digis can be heard far-and-wide, but their ability to hear any station that isn’t running 25 watts or more is greatly limited. Further, some events travel into these hills, effectively cutting them off from APRS coverage.

The solution is to add additional APRS digipeaters out on the course. This can improve coverage, but requires additional hardware and maybe even someone to tend the device. I’ve done this and it can work, but still requires one or two dry runs to make sure the additional digipeaters are properly programmed and situated.

During my term as president of the Northern California Packet Association, we were able to designate 144.410 as a secondary APRS channel in Northern California. That has the benefit of providing a quiet channel, but adds a requirement to eitghher operate without digipeaters or to install all the necessary infrastructure yourself. We have tested that and, with 50-watt radios, it works pretty well. But, even with two mobiles and a single digipeater we had interference issues.

Is Radio Not The Answer?

On my iPhone live two APRS apps (ibcnu and Open APRS) which do a pretty good job of transmitting and plotting position reports. While the positions tranmitted to the APRS network do not make it back to RF (without some special gateway settings), they are visible to all Internet users. (Yes, there are Android apps, too).

Because they use the cellular data network, the apps can transmit position reports at any interval chosen, at the expense of battery life. Connect the phone to a charging cable and battery becomes a non-issue. Cellular coverage, more specifically, the lack of coverage, can be an issue for celluar APRS. So using phones instead of ham radio may be a problem in some areas.

On the positive side, the app runs without someone monitoring it and doesn’t require a licensed operator. That means you could monitor the position from one phone in a vehicle and call a second phone to give instructions. Look ma, no ham radio!

Digital Modes

I am not an expert on digital voice modes, but the ones I have looked into can transmit position reports more or less automatically. Hit the repeater, send your position, sometimes in the background (I think). Someday, there will be enough digital repeaters and radios around that this will be what we use. Someday. Maybe. But, using which mode? D-STAR, P25, MotoTrbo, Yaesu DigitalFusion or something else?

Using What Works

Given the right hardware and operators (both in adequate quantities), plus rehearsal time, it is doubtless possible to make APRS work. I think the folks in Stanislaus County use it for their bike rides, but they have more people than I do. If I needed a position reporting capability, I’d probably use smartphones rather than radios, given the option.

But there is something else I could do, and it’s even simpler. Instead of relying upon additional technology, we can train operators to transmit their locations over voice occasionally. And train net controls to maintain situational awareness of where the mobiles are and to ask the mobiles for the estimated travel time to a location before dispatching them. If another mobile is closer, its operator can pipe up and “jump the call,” as my medic friends say.

I am not anti-APRS, far from it, and will be continue trying to make it work. The problem with smartphones, BTW, is user cooperation and having the app accidentially (or purposefully) shut off. But, I will keep trying and report back occasionally.

Six Things I’ve Learned

  1. Do not expect 5-watt radios and trackers to do the job.
  2. Consider bringing your own digipeater intrastructure and using a frequency that isn’t 144.390.
  3. Think about adding smartphones to the mix. (This means net control needs Internet access to see the locations of the phone users).
  4. Consider digital voice modes. Good luck with that.
  5. Test and rehearse on the actual course you will be using. Try to add some realistic congestion to the channel to see how many packets get through. If using 144.390, this means additional congestion equal to what your event will contribute.
  6. Have a backup plan. APRS may not be as necessary as you think. Investing in operator training may generate a much greater return.