Special Event Operating

GB1STG 2014 at Galleywood CommonOperating (not-to-mention running) a special-event station can be daunting – Often, you are put in front of unfamiliar equipment with probably several people calling you and possibly a fair few people standing around you expecting you to show them what our hobby is all about.

This can often lead to problems – Whether it’s not knowing crucial information about the event or simply having distractions around you.

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 when conditions are good, it’s not hard to tell apart the stations who are well-prepared and those aren’t – This entry serves to help both the organizer and operator of special-event stations do better!

1. Printed Crib-Sheets
A glaring omission at many events – Never mind the PR aspect of posters, QSL cards, club-banner etc – The operator should have the Event Callsign in a large clear font (as we all let our own Callsigns slip out from time-to-time) plus the location information in several forms, eg: Town name, Maidenhead/QRA Locator and WAB Square.  You don’t need to impart all of that onto every QSO partner, but there are times when you’ll be asked for your Worked All Britain square (even by an EU station) and not have a clue what it is.

Include a few bullet-point notes about the history surrounding event/location – NOT overly-long paragraphs, just a few highlighted points, 2 or 3 sentences each at most – which can be varied with each QSO.  The idea is get the basics of the event and its details inside the operator’s head so that they can “dance” around it ad-hoc without needing to think about it.

It’s also a good idea to learn the difference between the words celebrate and commemorate.  You’d be surprised at the amount of times operators have got it wrong – if it’s a tragic event then it’s a commemoration and NOT a celebration.

2. Headphones+Speakers
Special-events are normally at a very public place, so it’s obvious you want the public to be attracted-to (and hear) the radio activity, the operator needs to be able to concentrate on their 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 making noise is asking for trouble – there will be too many distractions (and back-seat operators) which leads us on to:

3. 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 during extremely busy periods 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 focused 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, eg: “Who is the 9 with X-ray in the call?”.  If they persist, address them directly: “G9ABC please stand-by, I’m listening for DL9XXX only”.

Getting into a rhythm is a great way to improve your operating confidence: Exchange a couple of overs before bidding them “73” and moving on.  Maintaining an efficient (yet polite) QSO routine is a skill and takes practice, but those at the other end of the radio probably appreciate the situation you’re in.  You only need to exchange some basic information and, especially when there is a considerable pile-up, you or the other stations waiting do not need the same “QTH, WAB Square, reason for event” being mentioned on every QSO.

This is why that crib-sheet is important: A bullet-point list of the basics which are easy to learn or tweak on-the-fly – Vary the information you give and adjust to the conditions.  If it’s quiet, or you’re just starting-up then by all means have a longer “chat” with people but try to keep that snappy rhythm when things are busy.  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 their details, simply thank them for the QSO, announce your callsign and call “QRZ?”.

Closing Thoughts
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 accessible and enjoyable for newbies and/or 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 (see Point 1, Crib Sheets, above).

If you regularly run a yearly event (or events!) then consider each one a new “thing”: What’s changed since the last, who is around to help and what aspects of the hobby (and, indeed, the public) are different that may require the “usual setup” to be changed?

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…