The essence of public service communications is in getting the message from point A to point B. This sounds simple enough when points A and B are in the same county and you have a local repeater that covers the whole county, but, what if point A is in the New Hampshire and point B is in Georgia? What if point A is in Maryland and Point B is in Idaho? You could use an IRLP repeater or DMR gateway – if the internet is still working. What if it isn’t? Maybe you could use 20 meters. What if it’s 4:00 am in the morning? What band do you use? What mode? Who do you contact?
All of these questions, and many more, need to be considered when setting up an emergency communications system. One thing that is very important in setting up high frequency (HF) emergency communications is in knowing what HF band or bands can provide reliable communications at any particular time for any particular route. This is an advanced communications skill that requires a lot of knowledge and skills that not everyone is familiar with.
This is also one area in which having contesting experience can provide a wealth of information and experience that may prove useful. There are several main types of contests that are excellent at providing the knowledge and experience required to make intelligent selections of time, routes, and frequencies. The various state qso parties allow you to learn about what frequencies at what times are best to communicate between your home station (assuming that’s where you are operating from) and the other state. For example, I am located in Toledo, Ohio. If I work the Illinois QSO Party, I will have an opportunity discover what times and bands are the best for working a state that is only two states away. I can get the same type of information about the path from here to Florida by working the Florida QSO Party. By working all of the state qso parties, I can build up the practical knowledge on the best way to contact virtually anywhere in the US.
Another type of contest is the ARRL Sweepstakes. In this contest, you have two days to try and work as many parts of the US and Canada as possible. By keeping a log of your contacts, you have a record of how propagation was for that season throughout the two days on various bands. If you continue to work this kind of contest, over the years you can come to understand the ranges of frequencies and times for many different paths.
The ARRL 160 meter contest is coming up this weekend (Dec 5 through Dec 7). I just became able to work this band for the first time about two months ago. I have a simple antenna and no power amplifier so I doubt I’ll score particularly high. The main thing I want to take away from this years contest is a better understanding of propagation on this, our only medium frequency band. I’ve read some things about the band but after the contest weekend, I’ll have some experience and some new practical knowledge of the operation of this band. I can then make changes to my station over the next year, and can compare the hopefully improved results after making the change.
The set of skills and knowledge required to set up communications over a given route at a given time, day, and season is not simple and not necessarily intuitive. It is, however, possible to improve your skills and knowledge by participating in contests and analysing your performance during those contests. As you acquire more experience, you gain a better, more complete understanding of propagation conditions. This actual, practical, experience greatly enhances what you read or what you’ve heard about a band’s propagation. Besides, you might just find you enjoy the competition aspect of contesting also. Give it a try.