Grid Down EMCOMM Winter Edition

Hello Operators.

Extreme weather and grid failures in various degrees, are a fact of life in many parts of the world. More often than not we prepare ourselves for bad weather or the grid being down, with solid training. Yet we usually do that training, in fair weather conditions. I don’t believe training in nice weather is a realistic way to prepare for less-than-ideal conditions. With that said, here are some of my thoughts regarding winter field deployment.

Quick note about winter field day

So I already told you about Winterfield day Association . Each year the Winter Field Day Association puts on a Ham Radio event called “Winter Field Day“. The event is designed to motivate amateur radio operators to get out in the field for training, in conditions which are less than perfect. Lets be clear here, every operator experiences unique conditions during winter. In the Arctic we have to deal with cold, snow, perhaps ice and bitter wind. Someone else may be dealing with scorching temperatures, exposure, torrential rains or incredibly high heat index. Whatever conditions you happen to be in, it’s important to get outside and embrace them in regards to Communications preparedness.

This video is my take on how we can use Winter Field day to develop or enhance our communications skills, in conditions most operators shy away from.

EMCOMM VS Communications Preparedness

There’s a huge disconnect between the yellow vest wearing emergency communications Community within amateur radio, and those seeking to learn and or develop skills for communications preparedness. They both have completely different methodologies, but they are overlapping.

  • With EMCOMM (North American Edition), we almost always have an expectation of a large Logistics deployment machine, deploying resources after the fact. Hopefully this will change after the horrific lessons of Puerto Rico.
  • With Communications Preparedness, our focus is grid down Communications in the thick of the disaster. There’s no Logistics, no one’s coming to help right away, so we are left on our own, getting information into and out of an active disaster zone.

Right now neither the EMCOMM community or the Communications Preparedness crowd are speaking the same language. They simply don’t understand one another. I suspect anyone reading this blog, or watching my videos has a firm grasp of both sides of this “Niche within a niche” as my friend John calls it. This disconnect between the two communities is critical for understanding and ultimately deployment in the field.

Deployment goals and concerns

Just like the unique environments we live or operate in, each operator also has unique areas where he or she needs to improve. As I’ve mentioned too often, no one persons challenges, are better or worse than anyone elses. The destinations may be similar, but the journeys are unique to the individual. With that said here’s a couple of my winter deployment concerns.

  • I’m concerned I won’t be able to set up the shelter fast enough. The longer it takes me to set up the shelter, the colder I get. My body is fine, my feet are fine, but my hands are a real concern. Fiddling with metal bits is about the worst thing one can do to their hands, in sub-freezing temperatures.
  • Once my shelter is set up, I’m concerned I won’t get the shelter heated quickly enough, before my fingers and hands succumb to the cold. I have a titanium wood stove. It’s pretty easy to put together, but it was not designed to do so with mittens or gloves on. This is a real bummer. In regards to wood stoves and heating shelters, there are two camps. You’ve got the ultra-light titanium wood stoves which are extremely easy to carry, but very clumsy to set up while wearing mittens or gloves. Then we have the larger almost ready to use wood stoves which weigh about 10 or 15 times more than the folding titanium stove. These stoves are almost ready to go, have pretty large parts, and can be assembled using mittens or gloves. The caveat is the weight.
  • Chopping wood and creating Tinder for my fire is also something I need to learn to do quickly. This is again one of those tasks for our hands , requiring fiddling around in the cold.
  • Setting up the antenna system is also a concern for hand exposure. We are again fiddling with metal parts, where speed and dexterity are important. There’s absolutely zero chance for a complicated antenna systems, in sub-freezing temperatures. To avoid unnecessary exposure, the antenna system needs to be fast and easy to put together, tune, and deploy.
  • Since most of my concerns are centered around exposure and avouding frostbite, it’s critical that I prepare a fire kit, so that I can quickly and efficiently get a fire going regardless of conditions. That kit will include birch bark, dried sticks and twigs, a wax based fire starter, matches, and fire steel/rod.

I have twiced experienced frostbite. One of those was severe. I kept my fingers and toes but not without the constant reminder of having gone through it, whenever I’m not careful.

Multi-Operator stations

For winter deployments a single radio, multi operator station in the field, is the most effective way to reduce the risks to any single operator. One operator mans the radio, while the other mans the wood stove. One operator prepares food, while the other operator does other tasks. The logic behind this is simple yet often overlooked. The shelter and source of heat are as much a part of the station, as the antenna and the radio. One operator deploying alone, is definitely less effective than two operators sharing the station tasks.

Shelter and Power

NorTent Lavvo 4

I just received my new tipi tent from Nortent. It’s the NorTent Lavvo 4 tipi tent. There was nothing wrong with the larger six man tipi tent I have, but it is quite big for solo deployment

Main reasons choosing the smaller tipi tent.

  • Smaller tipi to carry means I can carry more food or supplies (if necessary).
  • Smaller tipi is easier to keep warm with a wood stove.
  • Smaller tipi makes it easier to keep warm from my own body heat, when I’m not using a wood stove.

Many operators believe they can deploy with an unheated shelter. I would say this is absolutely true if you are simply sleeping inside that shelter. We can always make our Sleep System warmer, adapting to whatever type of shelter we have, provided we can deal with any condensation build up within the shelter.

A heated shelter has many advantages. Firstly we avoid the entire issue of condensation. Condensation is a killer for our radio equipment, electronics, as well as for ourselves while sleeping. A wood stove or other source of heat provides the necessary environmental conditions to operate our equipment, I never comfortable operating environment inside the shelter. The more comfortable we are, the more effective we are as radio operators, and the longer we can remain deployed in the field.

Portable Power

We need to be very careful with lithium-based Battery Systems in Sub-freezing temperatures. This is not as difficult as it sounds. The point is the battery system should be in the same place you are, which is inside our heated shelters for charging and discharging simultaneously. If we’re only discharging the packs, we can discharge them without any damage to the cells down to around -40 Celsius. If you’re operating outdoors in temperatures lower than this, you’re a better operator than me.

There’s been some confusion about the solar generator and using it over the smaller 10 amp hour pack we built last year on the channel. The 10 amp hour pack was meant as a Daypack for the 817, or 5-7 hour pack for the 891 at 100 watts. Combined with a solar panel when the sun is actually available, that 10 amp hour pack is a real powerhouse. The solar generator on the other hand, is not just portable power, but a high capacity storage solution as well. We use it for 24/36 hours of continuous use, before ever plugging a solar panel into it. Since my personal interests take me closer and closer to sustained field communications, rather than a quick casual deployment, a solar generator is the right solution for me. So this is just a matter of using the right tool for the job.

I’ve done quite a few winter related deployments on the channel. Here’s my playlist with videos shot during winter. Some of these videos are definitely better than the others. If you’re into this sort of thing, you should enjoy the entire playlist.


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