I hope this lengthy newsletter finds you well. The main topics of this month’s newsletter will be NWS Computer guidelines & APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System) for ALERT & how we will use this.
NWS Computer Guidelines
Many times suggestions have been made about features we could or should have at K4NWS. Many times we run into issues either technical or administrative. For instance with RF items we ran into issues in that we were not allowed to climb towers & there is only limited space to run cables. While the cabling issue still exists, the tower-climbing situation has improved now that there is a certified climber for the NWS & now much progress has been made on our antenna system.
With computer related suggestions we run into the fact that we have an older computer in the ham cubical, which is straining to its limits & really can’t handle many more tasks & the fact there are NWS security protocols to be followed.
Honestly telling people of these limitations is not expressing negativity, but just pointing out the realisms and limitations of life, which is, as they say at work “keeping it real. These issues & limitations may frustrate us at times, but they are just something we have to accept and live with. Along with me reminding folk of them, which makes me the Grinch of ALERT. For which I am richly compensated.
If we know the bound that exist, we can work within the boundaries to make progress, which works, while trying to bypass the boundaries doesn’t work & puts those who might try in a bad light with the Powers That Be.
I feel we need to know what our boundaries are to get a better understanding of what we can and can’t do.
The NWS rules for Ham computer usage, are:
- Personal computers and laptops, while allowed in the WFO, cannot be connected to the internet or WIFI system at the NWS. This is due to security issues, as this is a Department of Commerce computer system. This is not an ALERT decision, but an NWS / DOC mandate, of which no exceptions are permitted or granted.
- Hams may use the computer in the K4NWS cubicle. However hams can’t add
programs to the computer, as we don’t have administrator privileges & if you try to install a program it simply won’t work & may interfere with future approved
attempts to install programs.
To add a program, ALERT leadership must submit the program to the NWS
for evaluation & review by NWS leadership & their IT personnel. If it is approved, their IT officer is the only one who can install the program.
- On the K4NWS computer hams have unlimited access to web based resources, as long as they are germane to our operations.
Again by knowing the rules, we can work within the rules to make progress, which bring us to the next portion of our newsletter.
APRS for ALERT
APRS for ALERT is now a reality. This feature I believe will prove to be a very valuable addition to our toolkit.
While neither APRS, nor any of our other resources should be viewed as a cure all nor is fool proof, it does provide several valuable features which I feel we should have available for our use for station location, messaging & weather data.
The station location ability is very valuable of course for when location is unknown or uncertain, either due to being in unfamiliar territory or when all landmarks have been obliterated, such as in a damage path or debris field. Even the most familiar neighborhood becomes unrecognizable after a large tornado. Only APRS can tell you what street you are one.
One asset, which I’ve never heard, commented on is that APRS can keep a station in touch even when voice modes fail. For instance if 88 fails or is out of range, APRS may still be viable path in that it uses many digipeaters to receive it’s signals which provide for multiple chances of signal interception. Which is one of the reasons why it’s messaging ability is important.
The network of weather stations can give the NWS information on what is happening beyond the horizon of their instrumentation.
So, this is a tool worthy of our tool belt.
Now, before I detail the instructions and guidelines we will be using for APRS, I must touch on the concerns that have expressed by members about APRS usage.
Over the past months emphasis and attention is seemingly always given to Spotterchats, APRS and other “new high tech solutions”, which could give the impression that ALERT’s RF operations have or are becoming of secondary importance, which is far from the case.
It is true that in the past months much attention has been given to these new technologies, as they have been implemented, explored and “debugged”, but the primary tool of ALERT and K4NWS is and always will be Amateur Radio Voice communications. For voice communications still offers the fastest way of handling reports in rapidly changing weather events. And, in severe weather situations "speed is life”.
Average human speech is conducted at 150–160 words per minute. While a professional typist can reach between 50 to 70 WPM, typical computer typing speed is from 23 to 40 WPM. Which is slower than the average morse code speed on National Traffic System regional CW nets of 35 to 45 WPM. So, voice is still faster, even with our Suthin Drawls than non-voice communications.
Also, RF voice operations will always have a “broader demographic”, so to speak. For, anyone can participate in a severe weather voice net, which provides a much larger operator pool, where Spotterchats, APRS & D-Star have smaller operator pools, much like packet and amateur television operations, both of which have also been proposed in the past.
These specialized modes have great value, but not everyone will be interested in using them. Their fans naturally see their worth & urge their use, and those who aren’t interested in them simply aren’t interested and prefer to use other more familiar modes and methods, which they specialize in instead, which is perfectly natural & acceptable. For instance, I like CW & see its worth in everyday use and in emergency communications. Some hate CW declaring it an unnecessary relic, either from a genuine learned dislike or because of the self-assumption that it is beyond their ability to learn.
We should be open to try new things, which is why we are exploring these new options.
But our RF operations are just as important as they ever were and are here to stay. And, if you are uncomfortable or not interested in using the new gizmos, don’t worry about it, and don’t let it make you reluctant to respond to K4NWS. For RF is still and always will be our primary tool.
Remember that the most important need of ALERT is not for a galaxy of new innovations, which can either inspire or intimidate.
Our most important need is for operators to respond to callouts to man the radio station at K4NWS.
The use of anything except the radio equipment at K4NWS is purely optional.
What we need is YOU.
As I type this I have 5 chatrooms – ABC3340, NWSChat, Spotterchat, ALERT Chat & the Jackson WFO NWSChats going. Plus I have WXSpots running, and am monitoring for messages for K4NWS, am looking at APRS Weather station readings and am watching College of Dupage radar. That’s a lot to look at, even for a weatherholic like myself.
I could add other NWSchats, other radars, ALERT’s secret experimental chatroom http://alert–nws.chatango.com/ and other items, but at some point my brain and my computer will say “NO”.
There really is a limit on how much an operator, whether at K4NWS or at home can effectively absorb before he becomes overwhelmed. And that limit will vary with each operator and with the circumstances being encountered.
If nothing much really is happening, one can have a broad focus and monitor many things at once. But, in a PHTP – (that Poop Hits The Propeller) situation ones focus necessarily narrows greatly.
Most people really can’t talk on 2 repeaters, scan spotterchats, be writing things down, looking at radar, be eavesdropping & interacting with the NWS personnel and tracking folk on the computer effectively at the same time for too very long. The brain will begin to shut down as mental fatigue rapidly descends.
That’s why we separated the spotterchats from the RF operations, and is also why much of the APRS activity will be handled offsite, with APRS Weather Station reports & messaging to K4NWS being handled offsite as an extension of the spotterchat system.
APRS tracking, when desired by the K4NWS operator, can be handled at K4NWS, or offsite by K4NWS request.
Onsite use of APRS tracking at K4NWS is an optional choice by the operator on scene, as is K4NWS Spotterchat coverage. Not all operators will choose to use these features. Which is fine. The primary mission of K4NWS is to obtain storm reports via Amateur Radio.
An operator at K4NWS is not a Net Control Station, nor do we try to run other counties net operations. This has been clearly expressed by various nets across the area. They want to help K4NWS in any way possible, but, THEY run their nets, not ALERT or BARC or SCARC.
That said, except in the case of direct communications with a station, K4NWS should not be responsible for finding the positions of a particular county’s storm spotters. This is the responsibility of the NCS of whatever net, in whatever county that is taking the report. That Net’s NCS should already have obtained that information before contacting K4NWS.
In a fast paced PHTP situation, the K4NWS operator simply may not have time to look for someone reported as being “somewhere on Highway 78”, while Pelham, Montgomery and Oneonta have tornadoes on the ground & are calling simultaneously on multiple frequencies.
Again, the Net’s NCS should have already obtained this information before trying to relay the report.
But, this does not always happen & so now, thankfully we have the ability, if the field station has APRS, to attempt to clarify their location in as timely manner as possible. APRS tracking is our backup system for when we get mushy position reports.
In situations where the K4NWS operator, either due to overload or other reasons cannot use APRS, he can always call on another member to “see if you can find WX4ZZZ’s location on APRS for me.”
Every station reporting doesn’t need to be tracked down, just the stations we are unsure of. If, for instance, Bubba says he is at Lakeshore Drive and I-65 by Walmart, we don’t need to track him down with APRS. We know where he is, for he already has told us & we assume he is telling the truth and that he isn’t “out there”, nutty as a road lizard.
Another concern is that we already have people who assume K4NWS will, or should be on the air when a warning is issued for their county. This is impossible, for it is too short a “Short Fuse Warning” and we would have to be continuously manning K4NWS, which our families and employers probably wouldn’t appreciate.
ALERT / K4NWS is activated by the NWS for usually only for watches, so we can have a greater chance of providing staffing and, to borrow CERT’s philosophy, “do the most good for the most people”.
There is a concern that people will assume APRS is being continually monitored, which it will not be. It can be monitored as much as the Spotterchats are, but, it should never be assumed that there will always be someone looking for APRS reports.
This is similar to the assumption that K4NWS should be on 88, 98 or D-Star waiting for reports, when we really are supposed to be targeting the trouble areas, which may not even be near the Jefferson/Shelby County areas. We listen as best we can, but, there will be times we are on other frequencies.
We do want to be able to help people using APRS, but we don’t want them to overly rely on it. This philosophy applies to the spotterchat system also. So, it’s not a new revelation.
With all that said, now that I’ve dumped rain on our APRS parade, lets look at how we can use these features. Which I do encourage you to try out and learn, as they are worthy of our knowledge.
When I envisioned this approach I wanted a system that had three main qualities:
- It had to be web based:
So our computer limitations at K4NWS would be minimal
So members could access the same programs at home so they could
familiarize themselves with the programs at home & begin practicing and
using these features.
- It had to be simple to learn and use. For complicated programs end up being unused programs.
3. It had to have tracking ability, texting ability & weather report access.
How Will We Use APRS
First for K4NWS operations.
A storm report, any storm report should contain the following information:
- What is the situation?
- Where is it happening or where did it happen?
- When did it happen?
- If the location is unclear, does the station have APRS & is it turned on?
- If yes, are they still at the incident location? If they have moved since the incident they are reporting occurred, tracking them is pointless.
- Are they running multiple stations, and if so, which identifier should we look for? For instance, if the report is “WD4NYL, I have a funnel cloud at Lakeshore and f@#&%*ple…..”. Looking at APRS you see WD4NYL-2 at Lakeshore & Highway 280, WD4NYL-5 at Lakeshore and Oxmoor Road & WD4NYL-10 at Lakeshore and Highway 150. Which station & location do you choose?
To use APRS tracking at K4NWS or offsite:
- Go to http://aprs.fi/ (shortcut is on Ham computer). The map may or may not start with the Birmingham area. It doesn’t matter.
- Type in the identifier, (I normally pick WB4FAY-5) in the search field "Track callsign” located in the upper right hand corner. His weather station location will be seen.
- Using the slide rule control on the upper left of the screen and move the rule up by in steps and you can zero in on his exact street location, as you can also do with any station that is displayed on the map.
To use APRS for messaging & weather station reports offsite or at K4NWS:
1. Keeping Google APRS on standby, Go to http://www.findu.com/cgi-bin/find.cgi?call=WB4FAY-5. His stations location will be displayed.
2. On the left of the screen click “Nearby APRS activity” which will produce a chart showing nearby activity in the past 240 hours. It is critical that you look at the time stamp given under “Last Activity” on the right of the screen. These stations may not currently be on the air, and may not have been for several days. The format is day, hour, minute & second.
3. You will see some stations have “msg” & “wx” listed with them.
1. Only the ones stations with “msg” can be communicated with. Not all APRS
units have messaging capability. Click on “msg” and hit either “send another” or “reply”.
2. Fill in the fields “Your Callsign” & Send message to”.
3. Type your message, keeping it short.
4. Click “Send The Message!”
5. If they are monitoring their messages, you probably will get a reply. But, be cautioned that they may not be looking at their APRS unit & may not notice your message.
For ALERT purposes Operational Members should monitor messages for K4NWS at http://www.findu.com/cgi-bin/msg.cgi?call=k4nws
When we see a message we should acknowledge the message & if it seems like a valid or important report, we should “copy and paste” it onto NWSchat”. Such as “Ham APRS report of funnel cloud at Lakeshore & Greensprings at 23:00Z”
Weather Station Reports:
1. Access weather station data by clicking “wx”. This will bring up several graphs
showing weather trends.
2. Access current reports by clicking “Nearby weather activity”. This will provide
a chart giving the last known weather conditions for the various stations. (Again, make sure to check the timestamp. Is the data old or new?
3. To find the exact location click on the callsign.
4. Click “Nearby APRS Activity & then the callsign again & zero in on the map that appears using the slide rule control as before.
Of particular interest to the NWS are severe wind speeds, usually 55 MPH or greater, along with the wind direction in degrees, and excessive rainfall amounts.
One cautionary note is that APRS reports & data can be difficult to confirm and you don’t know if the instruments have been calibrated and properly deployed as close to NWS standards as possible. However except in cases where the data is obviously “way out there”, the reports can be taken as factual and used as “unconfirmed reports”.
Targeting Other Cities than Birmingham:
1. Go back to Google APRS & pull the map back for a statewide view & then drag
the city you want to target to the center of the screen & zoom in.
2. Pick a station, any station as an anchor point & follow the instructions already given for messaging and monitoring weather reports.
Try these sites and methods out and explore them. There are many other features to be explored and discovered which I’ve yet to try, for I am learning this also.
Learn, practice and use these methods now, so you can smoothly use them, when the PHTP times arrive.
You’ll find it’s something worth doing.
With the arrival of November we enter our second tornado season. Alabama and the Southeast are “blessed” by being the only area on Earth with two tornado seasons. And, the cause of the second season is the same as the spring season – clashes of cold and warm air masses. The cold air of winter invading and trying to push the warmth of the summer back into the sea, which is the same process of springtime, just in reverse.
The second season is often more destructive than the spring season. So beware of a warm & muggy November day. Especially with a south wind, as something may be brewing.
The 2009 Atlantic hurricane season has been quiet, while the Eastern Pacific has been very active. In November the Atlantic hurricane activity occurs mainly in the open Atlantic, threatening the Eastern Seaboard, but usually veering off into sea as cold fronts off the East Coast deflect them. Hurricanes can still form in the Caribbean, which usually visit the Yucatan, but can enter the Gulf.
Hurricane season ends November 30.
November welcomes the peak of fall colors. For Birmingham the peak occurs around November 15, but can vary depending on your elevation & latitude.
Don’t be surprised if you hear ducks overhead & see wedges of Canadian geese heading south for the winter. If you see strange birds appearing in your front yard, don’t be surprised, for to 336 species of birds Alabama IS south for the winter.
November’s Full Moon is “Beaver Moon” in Native American folklore.
This month’s meeting will be on November 10 at 7PM at the National Weather Service
Forecast office at the Shelby County Airport
I will be unavailable for this meeting & our Vice-President Russell KV4S will be presiding.
Give him a good turn out….;-).
73 and take care.