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An ARES alert system using listservs

ARES LogoLast night I was having a conversation with Marty KB3MXM, ARRL Maryland-DC (MDC) Section Manager, regarding notification of ARES® members in times of need, quickly.  This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the topic and not much has changed.  Taking another look at the subject has given me the opportunity to look at some additional resources.

Various options are available today (each with their own pros and cons):

  • Phone trees
    • PRO: Simple, easy to establish
    • CON: Assumes telephony lines are up and not congested.  Also, calling the 500+ members in the MDC ARES team could take a while.
    • Pretty much every ARES organization has such a device as a means of communicating with their members.  It’s cheap, simple, and easy to deploy although it could be time consuming to actually use.
  • Short Message Service (SMS) notification systems
    • PRO: Fast delivery of short messages to cellular phones.
    • CON: Assumes cellular circuits are available, solution can be costly, and may require Internet access to implement a notification.
    • Calvert County AUXCOMM currently uses ez texting to send SMS messages to all members.  At the time the account was established we were able to get a free account with ~100 SMS messages per month.  This type of account is no longer advertised.
    • See also, Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS)
  • Email Listservs
    • PRO: Simple to setup, can send messages to phones via SMS email addresses, regular email addresses, and Winlink addresses.  Email is fairly ubiquitous.
    • CON: Assumes Internet connectivity to the server, from the server to the client email servers, and then to the clients themselves.
    • Similarly to the phone tree, I suspect most ARES groups have one of these already setup and ready to go.
  • Transmitting messages across the radio
    • PRO: All radio with a potential for higher availability.
    • CON: Requires users to be monitoring  a particular frequency all the time.
    • The best case I’ve seen for this is in Connecticut ARESTheir DMR network has an alert talkgroup that is silent but for alerts.  Because the system is all UHF the radios are small enough to be carried most places which increases the possibility that a user will have it monitoring the talkgroup for such a call-up.
    • Paging is also an option which could be successful.

There are likely additional means of communicating an alert message to ARES members and I’m sure they’ve been deployed with success somewhere (and if you know of any please leave a comment!).

The problem with most of these solutions is they require commercial infrastructure that may already be hampered by the emergency that the ARES members are needed for.  Obviously a hybrid approach is always going to be better.   With that in mind, lets discuss using a listserv to transmit alert and informational messages to members.

Listserv

Gnu_mailman_logo2010A listserv is just a system that retransmits email messages received to the list’s subscribers.  The listserv may also store a copy of the message for subscribers or the public to review at a later date.  One popular implementation of a listserv server is GNU Mailman.  One could use existing solutions like Yahoo! Groups or Google Groups but these solutions scrape their data for advertisement purposes and can lead to spam and other activities that only degrade for the overall experience.  There is also no guaranteed availability with these solutions so it’s likely not a good fit for emergency communications.  By now one can tell I’m advocating for managing your own infrastructure.  There’s nothing like controlling your own information and making sure it stays secure.

Specific to the MDC section, multiple layers of listservs might be appropriate to allow an easy transmission to all or parts of the group.  Individuals are added to their county(ies), district lists only address the county lists below them, and the MDC list only addresses the district lists:

  • Maryland-DC – MDC-ARES-All@
    • Eastern District MDC-ARES-East@
      • Caroline – MDC-ARES-CARO@
      • Denton
      • Dorchester
      • Kent
      • Ocean City
      • Queen Anne’s
      • Somerset
      • Talbot
      • Wicomico
      • Worchester
    • Central District
      • Anne Arundel
      • Baltimore City
      • Baltimore County
      • Calvert
      • Cecil
      • Charles
      • DC
      • Harford
      • Howard
      • Montgomery
      • Prince Georges
      • Saint Marys
    • Western District
      • Allegany
      • Carroll
      • Frederick
      • Garrett
      • Washington

Administration and sending permissions would also be limited to specific addresses at a particular level.  An EC would be able to send a message to their specific county, and perhaps their district, but not to the entire section.  List membership would be managed at the local level by the EC or their designated alternate (AECs?).  One change, one place, would be all that is needed to maintain the entire chain.

The latest version of Mailman supports a forum-type of interface in addition to email delivery so one could input a message via a website if email wasn’t available.

Duplication of these layers may be desired to support non-alert messages (routine, informational) that would likely be larger than what could be handled by SMS.  Additional lists could be used for specific section-level nets (e.g. MEPN, MDD) or local nets (BTN) to alert members to an other-than-regular call-up.  Likewise, it might be beneficial to also setup a layer including management (SEC, DECs, ECs, and AECs) when notification of all members isn’t warranted (planning).

What about SMS?

SMS can actually be handled by a listserv fairly easily.  Every SMS account actually has an email address attached to it (as listed in the National Interoperability Field Operations Guide, Version 1.5):

  • Alaska Communications
    • SMS: number@txt.acsalaska.net
    • MMS: 11-digit-number@mms.ak.net
  • Alltel
    • SMS: number@sms.alltelwireless.com
    • MMS: number@mms.alltelwireless.com
  • AT&T
    • SMS: number@txt.att.net
    • MMS: number@mms.att.net
  • Bell Canada
    • SMS & MMS: number@txt.bell.ca
  • Boost Mobile
    • SMS: number@sms.myboostmobile.com
    • MMS: number@myboostmobile.com
  • C Spire Wireless
    • SMS & MMS: number@cspire.com
  • Cricket Wireless
    • SMS: number@sms.mycricket.com
    • MMS: number@mms.mycricket.com
  • General Communications Inc. (GCI)
    • SMS: number@mobile.gci.net
    • MMS: number@mms.gci.net
  • Iridium
    • SMS: number@msg.iridium.com
  • Metro PCS
    • SMS & MMS: number@mymetropcs.com or number@metropcs.sms.us
  • Qwest
    • SMS & MMS: number@qwestmp.com
  • SouthernLinc Wireless
    • SMS: number@page.southernlinc.com
    • MMS: number@mms.southernlinc.com
  • Sprint
    • SMS & MMS: number@messaging.sprintpcs.com
  • T-Mobile
    • SMS & MMS: 11-digit-number@tmomail.net
  • Telus Communications
    • SMS & MMS: number@msg.telus.com
  • TracFone
    • SMS & MMS: number@mmst5.tracfone.com
  • U.S. Cellular
    • SMS: number@email.uscc.net
    • MMS: number@mms.uscc.net
  • Verizon
    • SMS: number@vtext.com
    • MMS: number@vzwpix.com
  • Virgin Mobile
    • SMS: number@vmobl.com
    • MMS: number@vmpix.com

ARES members would need to provide their cellular phone number and carrier so they could be added to the list.

But what about using the radio?

Winlink

Members that utilize the Winlink system can also add their Winlink e-mail addresses to the listserv as well.  This will allow the member to be notified by RF (when a pull is done from the Winlink server) as well as email and SMS push message.

Call frequencies and primary repeater

Members that, as a matter of routine, monitor their local ARES repeater or a specific frequency that is used for emergencies can also be alerted in such a manner.  It’s important to not count out the simple approach of being able to simply do a call-up on the local repeater as a means of notifying members of an emergency.

Assumptions

It is assumed that a total Internet failure has not occurred.  A system like this is dependent upon Internet connectivity not only between the user’s email client and user’s email SMTP server but also to the subscribers’ SMTP servers and subscribers’ clients.  It assumed that notifications sent would occur before the communications emergency actually started or that at least some of the members would receive the message and word could be passed using an additional method (e.g phone tree, repeater call-up) to notify those not yet participating.

There is also an assumption that users have a cellular phone, email address, or Winlink account and that these communications mechanisms are checked regularly.

Conclusion

While there are several ways of notifying ARES members of a communications emergency this shows one way of doing so utilizing a mechanism that is, from the user’s point of view, very simple.  We shouldn’t let “this isn’t a perfect solution” hold us back from “better than we have now” and “yet another tool”.  Utilizing a series of listservs could potentially deliver an alert message to all users within a few seconds and this is definitely better than what we have today.

RFC: Using video conferencing for GPG key signing events

A thought that I haven’t had a chance to fully consider (so I’m asking the Internet to do that for me)…

I have a geographically-diverse team that uses GPG to provide integrity of their messages.  Usually, a team like this would all huddle together and do a formal key-signing event.  With several large bodies of water separating many of the team members, however, it’s unlikely that we could even make that work.

The alternative I thought of was using a video chat meeting to facilitate the face-to-face gathering and exchange of information.  There are obviously some risks, here, but I wonder if those risks are suitably mitigated through the use of authenticated/encrypted links to the video chat system?  Can anyone point to why this would be a bad idea?

More tropo ducting today

This morning around 9AM I got mixed up with a crowd on 144 MHz.  Since I’m the new guy I ended up with a pileup on my hands!  I picked up KA3QWO, KG4KWW, K1PXE, WB2SIH, K3GNC, WV2H, N2FKF, W1AN, and WB2QEG in very quick succession.  We then ventured up to 23cm (1296 MHz) and I worked W1AN, WB2SIH, K1PXE, and K3GNC (most with armchair copy).  I ended the morning’s tropo opening with a contact with AC2BL on 2m (144 MHz).

Longest distance on 144 MHz: 320.5 mi (515.8 km) – AC2BL
Longest distance on 1296 MHz: 305.6 mi (491.8 km) – W1AN
Loudest signal: W1AN (louder and clearer the higher in frequency we went!)

I’m hoping for another few mornings like this one.  Thanks to all the stations I made contact with; it was fun!

Sked and QSL from GM3YOR

GM3YOR QSL Card

QSL card and envelop received from GM3YOR.

While looking over my DXCC statistics I noticed that my log didn’t match the DX station’s log as uploaded to Clublog.  I double checked my log and it looked like a good QSO but upon checking with the DX station it was determined that I had not, in fact, made it successfully into his log.  But in grand amateur radio fashion he offered to set up a sked with me for the following afternoon so we could work and I could get Scotland on CW in my logs.

I had never had a scheduled QSO with someone I didn’t know and was a little uncertain if it would actually happen.  We had agreed to a frequency on 20m and I was monitoring it ten minutes before the appointed time.  Unfortunately for the both of us, the previous day I had removed my trusty J-38 key from service and replaced it with a set of Vibroplex paddles.  Since I hadn’t actually used the paddles in years my fist left something to be desired.  It was amazing that Andrew could actually tell what I was saying in the first place!

A few minutes early I started calling him but didn’t hear a response.  A few minutes later, right on time, I heard a strong signal calling me.  VOACAP had certainly predicted the propagation correctly as his signal was registering 40 dB on my signal meter.  After a quick contact on 20m we decided to meet on 30m to give that band a try.  While not as strong, we were able to make contact there as well adding a new band for Scotland for me.

I was quite pleased with making this contact but even more so when, after only a few days, I received the above envelope and card in the mail.  A fast QSL with a nice card!  Andrew certainly exhibits really good amateur radio values.  Thanks Andrew!

DXCC Entity # 153 – Asiatic Russia

Taking immediate advantage of my new Extra Class privileges, last night I picked up a new DXCC entity – Asiatic Russia.  This one has been difficult for me.  I worked the entity back in 2002 but couldn’t get a confirmation.  Since then I’ve heard them but never been able to work them.  That all changed last night.

As I’ve always said, you work the contests because that’s where the DX will be.  I’m not sure what contest is going on this weekend but it has brought out the DX.  I heard, and then worked, RG0A on 14008.6 kHz.  He was a good 559 on this side of the pond and received a similar report.  This morning I pleasantly found a QSL waiting for me on LoTW from him.  Nice!

The Radiobuster

The RadiobusterThe Radiobuster by Volney G. Mathison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a great book that I happened to stumble upon. I’ve been looking for a book that talks about life as a commercial radio operator but have found few. This book approaches my expectations although I wish the author would have spoken more on the radio operation itself. Still this is an excellent book for anyone interested in the life of a commercial radio operator in the 1920s.

View all my reviews

Calvert County ARES Emergency Coordinator

W4OTN Calvert County EC badgeEarlier this month I volunteered to take over the position of ARES Emergency Coordinator (EC) for Calvert County. The previous EC had gotten busy in other areas and decided it was time to step down. I’ve held this position before but in a different location so while the job isn’t completely foreign to me, well, it’s been a while. I’ve been working on a new emergency operations plan (EOP) for ARES that’s more of an all-hazards plan than laying out specifics. Once that is complete I’ll start trying to get people to work on developing training and training topics.

At last night’s ARES meeting I was happy to have fifteen people join me in a review and feedback session on the new EOP. I’m hoping the momentum continues as I plan more training and exercises for the next few months. I’ll try to write about those events here when I get them complete.

What a difference 3.5MHz makes.

I was surprised at the difference  three and a half megahertz made this evening.  While chatting with my friend Emily, N1DID, we started trying different bands to check for a better signal.  Fifteen meters was okay but twelve was better.  We decided to try ten meters for the heck of it and the almost full-quieting signal of Emily’s was not heard at all just three and a half megahertz up the band.  Somewhere in that little bit of bandwidth the signal, instead of being returned to Earth via the ionosphere, was being shot into space with little hope that Emily would hear it.  I guess we found our maximum usable frequency!

Results of the W4OTN/R UHF repeater test

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I bought a UHF repeater and put it on the air at the Mt. Hope tower site here in Calvert County.  This was a temporary test which allowed myself and other CARA club members (and anyone else) to see what UHF would do in our area.  Turns out, the system did quite well.

We estimated ~3 watts was being seen at the antenna.  That’s not a lot of power and we weren’t expecting very good performance.  Turns out, that ~3 watts was enough to give us pretty good coverage, about a 15 to 20 mile radius with several longer distances seen.

We have now replaced the repeater with a Yaesu repeater and better duplexers.  We’re now seeing about 45 watts ERP and a better foot print (around 35 mile radius).

This has been a good experiment.  I’ll be moving on to stage two for my repeater project.