Special Event Operating

FT-857 at GB1STGNote: This article was originally posted on 3rd April 2015, but has since been updated with more information, tips and ideas.

Special-event stations should be an enjoyable experience for all concerned: The organizers, the operators, the spectators and those at the other end of the QSO.  Getting things right can be a struggle, but needn’t be if people pull-together and some reasearch is done into how others do it: Giving you things to try, avoid or adapt to fit your own requirements.  Our local group of Hams consists of a dedicated few who are able to provide large batteries and spare poles+wire to help get stations going: In my case, whilst I’m happy to lug a radio, 10m pole and wires on my bike, a battery larger than 12Ah is a bit too much of an ask.  So I typically offer wires and aerial consumables and those arriving on 4 wheels have the heavy stuff!

Planning – Who does what, what they bring and what bands are key to a successful event.  If you’re outdoors, then the weather is a major factor but other, relatively simple mistakes can also lead to problems.  Do you have enough equipment and person-power to run all of the bands/modes you want?  For our local events (such as GB1STG and GB1JSS) we focus on 40m SSB and 2m FM.  If the event is a special day in your city/town (or country) then having QSOs with that catchment area makes sense.  Those 2 bands also provide, from our experience, the most activity: UK-wide contacts and a chance for those to, perhaps, give HF a try for the first time – and 2m FM for local QSOs with fellow club members and those who were unable to attend.

The higher HF bands can offer a bit of “DX”, if that’s what you’d like to do: And CW and/or digital modes like PSK and RTTY often provide an attraction at a public event.  If you’re doing this, try to have somebody on-hand to explain what’s going on and what all the numbers/words mean.  If you’re at an indoor venue, a laptop (or a Raspberry Pi) connected to a monitor running a CW/PSK decoder app would look good.  Even just a 2nd monitor or projector-screen to make a big/obvious attraction as people enter the operating area – or just posters, pictures and QSL cards for simplicity.

The main organizer should be responsible for handling all correspondence related to the event: Special (GB) callsign, writing PR, sending updates to local clubs and contacting those who may be able to provide logistical support.

Safety is, of course, a major concern – and if you’re at a public event or on public land, then you’ll need to ensure that aerials, wires and other bits of “kit” are clearly visible if they’re a trip-hazard – bright-yellow rigging cord for supporting fishing-pole dipoles works for me!  If you’re setting-up outdoors, my Too Early for Portable post contains some tips on making the most of /P.  A Google-image-search of GB1STG produces some great pictures of our St George’s Day events and our summer event, GB1JSS June Summer Solstice, shows just how much fun a day in the sun can be!

Publicity – Getting the word out there is vital and if you want to get your event into a pubication, find out what the deadline date is for submissions.  News websites (like Southgate) are a great way of spreading details of what you’re doing: There are many sites and social-media feeds that carry the Southgate headlines so the potential audience is huge – when stories featuring a link to this site are featured, the amount of referrals are in their 100s.  This means that you need a place for people to go and find out about your event: If it’s a club event, liase with the webmaster to have the content added BEFORE you send out your PR.

Southgate typically publish about 6 stories each morning, so make sure you submit it in good time.  I would suggest a couple of paragraphs a week before to generate interest and then another a day or 2 before.  They generally publish it “as-is” so make sure it reads well.  Sometimes they will seek out a picture/logo from your site (that’s why having a webpage in place is essential) and add it to the publication..

Social media like Facebook and Twitter can be used – both have their benefits: Facebook is good for medium-length news posts plus photo galleries and Twitter is good for digestible “nuggets” of information, the odd picture and even live-tweets during the event, eg: “GB1ABC on 7.125, celebrating new radio exhibit at Small Town Museum”.  Knowing how to use these tools can make all the difference – don’t ignore the internet, otherwise people may ignore you!  Sure, you have “radio” to be getting on with but that doesn’t stop those helping/watching from using their own accounts to help promote the event: If the club/group has its own account/feed then a few retweets will make it look like a busy and active event.  Activity breeds activity, in my book – and a group of Hams enjoying an operating event, helping others to develop their skills leads to others wanting to “have a go”… and hopefully more events.  You’ve got a licence: So use it 🙂

On the day – operating using unfamiliar equipment, and a different callsign can be daunting – A GB callsign usually attracts a pile-up so those taking to the mic (or key) need to be prepared for that.  Picture the scene: A wall of callers shouting their callsign, people ignoring your request for a specific callsign only, and members of the public watching you do your thing…  Despite this hobby being based around communication – the average Ham, when faced with the above circumstances, will generally suck at it. Listening to 40m SSB, it’s not hard to tell apart the stations who are well-prepared and those who don’t have a clue.

GB1STG St George's Day operator's crib-sheetPrinted Crib-Sheets – An obvious ommission at many events – Never mind the PR aspect of posters, QSL cards, banner etc – The operator needs to have the Callsign in a large clear font (as we all let our own Callsigns slip out from time-to-time) as well as the location information. Also, include a few bullet-point notes about the history surrounding event/location – NOT a paragraph, just a few highlighted points, 2 or 3 sentences each at most.  Also, learn the difference between celebrate and commemorate. You’d be surprised at the amount of times I’ve heard the wrong one being used – if it’s a tragic event then it’s a commemoration and NOT a celebration.

To the right is an example of our GB1STG St George’s Day crib-sheet: These provide some fodder for QSO exchanges and if anybody asks your WAB Square (a popular request on 40m), then it’s immediately to hand.

Headphones+Speakers are essential if you’re in a public place/venue – while you want the public to hear what’s going-on the operator needs to be able to concentrate on the operating. They shouldn’t have to juggle a microphone and pen/keyboard whilst fielding questions from passing visitors – that’s the job of Helpers 2+3+4… Paper logging is fine, if that’s what your operators prefer, but computer logging will make the QSL Card admin much easier as well as give a 2nd operator something to do – perhaps get a feel for the radio traffic before taking over the reins. Having a logger also means another set of ears during a busy operating session.

That said, putting inexperienced operators on the air with just a radio and a speaker with a room full of people is asking for trouble – there will be too many distractions (and back-seat operators) which leads us on to:

Simple Communication – With a very busy station, it can be quite easy to lose control of the pile-up – I consider myself to have pretty good ears but there are times (particularly operating under a GB-callsign) that the sheer volume of callers means that I’m unable to pick out a single letter/number let alone a partial prefix/suffix. The best advice that I can offer is: Stay focussed and simply ask for a repeat – You’ll get something eventually. Be firm with those who call out of turn or who have Callsigns completely different from the one you are trying to pull in. If they persist, address them directly: “G9XYZ please stand-by, I’m listening for DL9XXX only”.

Perhaps a scary experience the first time, getting yourself stuck into the operating and finding a rhythm is a great way to improve your confidence (and skills) – Give every caller a couple of overs before bidding them “73” and moving on. You only need to exchange some basic information and when there is a considerable pile-up, you don’t have to repeat it every time – Vary the information you give and adjust to the conditions.  This is where a simple crib-sheet can be useful: Just pick bits from it for each QSO.  If it’s quiet then by all means have a longer “chat” with people.

In a previous blog post, I touched on operating tips “Owning the Airwaves” as well as linking to Callum M0MCX’s blog post about special-event operating – I concur with Callum’s “mirroring” approach, it’s a proven tactic and so long as you stick to your rhythm the pile-up will behave – Once you start “err’ing” and “umm’ing” and falling into waffle-mode it’s likely that the other stations will follow suit. If, despite your best efforts, a station goes into a long ramble but has otherwise given you all his details: Simply thank them for the QSO and call “QRZ?”.

Let’s do a quick example of a typical 40m SSB QSO during a busy special-event:

  • CQ CQ CQ this is Golf Bravo One Sierra Tango Golf, GB1STG celebrating St George’s Day calling CQ
  • [lots of callsigns]… X-Ray Yankee Zulu
  • …the station ending X-Ray Yankee Zulu only please call again
  • Mike Six X-Ray Yankee Zulu, M6XYZ
  • Mike Six X-Ray Yankee Zulu, thanks for the call.  Nice signal in the clear, you’re 5 and 8 here near Londdon.  Name here is Bob and this station is celebrating St George’s Day – we’re operating from a local park, so battery power and simple wire aerials in use.  M6XYZ from GB1STG.
  • GB1STG from M6XYZ OK Bob, sounds like you’re having fun.  Name here is John and I’m in Blackpool where you’re a very strong 5 and 9 plus on my 30ft wire. Just 10 watts here from an FT450D.  Must be nice and warm down there as it’s raining here and only 12’c, from M6XYZ.
  • Fine John, the 10 watts into that wire working well and the weather is really good here, about 16’c and blue skies.  Thanks for the contact and if you want to see what we’re doing, we’re tweeting pictures using the GB1STG hash-tag.  So, back to you for a final, John, from GB1STG

At this point, M6XYZ should give us a short final and we can simply come back with: Thanks, and 73, this is GB1STG, QRZ?

The next QSO can be similar, or not – depending upon how the next caller behaves: If they’ve been listening, they may say so and just ask for a signal report and perhaps your WAB Square if they’ve not heard you mention it in a while.

Phonetics should be used to establish that the callsign is correct – once a station has repeated it back to you, then stop using them.  If a station persists in getting your callsign incorrect, highlight it and keep giving the phonetics – that’s what they’re there for.  You can also make the handovers quicker by dropping the use of callsigns in certain places – the above example shows where this works best.

There’s no real difficulty in operating a busy, popular station. Just apply some common-sense…and if you’re setting one up, think about how to make it simple+accessible for newbies and those with a different skill-set than you: Remember that there may be experienced Amateurs taking to bands/modes that they’re less than comfortable with: VHF ops being let loose on 40m SSB would be a good example as would the opposite: A veteran HF user may have no awareness of Maidenhead Locator Squares (yes, it does happen) and when asked to give it may struggle if it’s not readily available (back to the importance of crib-sheets, again!).

Special-event stations are there to promote the hobby, celebrate/commemorate an historic event or location as well as give those domestically-challenged Hams a chance to operate a reasonable-sized station. The best thing you can do is make it easier for them to get stuck in – and motivate others to put a station on.