Ham Radio History – A story of an Amateur Radio Emergency Communication Van that Ernie Martin – WØAUU, was involved, in his own words. Posted by Martin Brossman KI4CFS
That old 1970 Chevy step van was a pile of junk and needed everything. We rebuilt the engine and had the transmission rebuilt. The steel studs on the inside most had rusted off at the bottom we had news ones made at a local trailer factory. Then added wood 2X2 studs so insulation could be added. We had new lower side panels made and put on and added a window and had it painted. We insulated the floor and put in electric heat. Then added a light bar to the top that had red, green and yellow lights. We did have a state red light permit but never used them. That old van was too big to run with red lights so I removed that fuse just to be sure. We did use the combination of yellow and green lights a few times. There were two banks of 12-volt batteries, each bank would run all the radio gear for two hours. They could be charged from the engine or from a gas generator and we also had 13 volts of solar power that would charge the batteries.
There were four operating stations, one for 80 meters, one for 20 meters, one for 2 meters and the mobile repeater and one for FRS and ATV. We had a radio for aircraft communications, one for tugs on the Mississippi it even had a satellite phone that the Red Cross used several times. Yes, it even had a CB radio. It had a flip-up 2-meter beam on the top. When we pulled in and parked we were on 2 meters in two minutes. Getting the dipoles up for 80 and 20 took some time, most of the time all the trees were gone after a tornado. We were on the air the night of Y2K, we were in a small town in southern Minnesota. On 80 meters we were able to talk directly to the Governor’s office in St. Paul. and you know how bad the bands were that night, everybody was on.
WE worked with several search and rescue dog teams looking for missing persons that is where the FRS radios came in handy because none of them were licensed hams they could not use 2-meter handheld. We did get our county sheriff to give us a county radio number and we had a police radio in the van that was used several times. We responded several times after a tornado had gone through and there was nothing left. The Red Cross was all ways glad to see our van because they knew we could send free radiograms for people and we sent thousands of them. IF you are going to do that, you NEED to have your forms printed and they have to check what message they want to send. they were printed what they had a choice of, we had things like……We are all fine the house did have some damage or We are all fine house is ok the message needs to be pre-printed because if not people tend to get way too long.
We could run all the gear from batteries or some from solar and all from a gas generator. We had two 45 amp inverters and one 75 amp inverter if the sun was down and the battery banks dead we ran from the generator. IF we needed to use the electric heat then we needed to run the generator so we had 220 volts. We also put an AC unit on the top, that needs 120 volts AC so the generator was needed for that. When we responded to an emergency we had everything with us we needed to run for four days right down to the toilet paper. Gear, tools, spare parts coax, connectors, all kids of wire and rope. Two pop up ten by tens with sides, tables even a ground rod and food and water and soda. The rig did have a microwave oven for hot dogs and burgers and soup. The only problem we had was there was no place to sleep! So the ten by tens were used for that. It worked but could have been better. Most of the time when the van was out it was the same three guys who went they were all retired and had the time to go.
The states of Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin decided to have an emergency drill on the Mississippi River. The plan was with all the diesel fuel and fertilizer that was being shipped up the river, Teresa’s got their hands on it and set it off and that took out a lock and dam on the river. We had meetings for six months about how they were going to do the drill. Their plan was to use the VHF radio at the lock and dams to communicate with the mobile units. We tried and tried to tell them that that was not going to work. We tried to tell them that their VHF signal would not be able to reach the mobile units behind the bluff. What do we know? At the last meeting, we did convince them to give us one of their radios to have in the com van. On the day of the drill we parked in a park overlooking the river, not only could we see for many miles we had radio communications for man miles in all directions. IT was a good thing we had one of their radios because we ended up relaying all of the communications. The other problem they had, when the Teresa’s blew the first lock and dam when that wall of water hit the next dam downriver it took that dam out so they had no VHF communications. Or that is what would have happened in the real world. When the drill was over and the final report was written, ham radio got five words on the bottom of the last page. If it wouldn’t have been for ham radio they would not have been able to have their drill.
The radio gear has been removed from the van but the inverters and all the wiring is still in both DC and AC. All the fuses and circuit breakers are still in. The van is for sale if anyone is interested. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
We did all that with NO federal or state money! We raised all the money to do the work and buy all the gear by selling hot dogs, popcorn and burgers with NO help from the local chamber of commerce they just made it hard for us. In an emergency, we must all stand together no matter what our little differences maybe, in emergency hams will stand side by side to help. This gave us more autonomy to do what we felt was right. It is hard to describe how great it felt and how rewarding it was personally to be working together on a project like this to help our community.
In an emergency, hams are there to help. We will all stand side by side. There will be many jobs to do, not all of them connected to the radio. In some emergencies, I have been asked by the police to direct traffic. In other emergency’s I have been asked to help with the cleanup. Whatever we are asked to do we do it with a smile. We have worked with several dog search teams, whatever we do we are not there to be the news, most of the time we are behind the scene and out of sight. 73’s WØAUU
See more photos of the Ham Radio Emergency van at: https://photos.app.goo.gl/RXyf9LS6oVodp5Bm8
Some questions and answers with Ernie Martin:
Q. Why did you create the van?
A. Our ham radio club could see there was a need for emergency communications when we went to our first disaster and the Red Cross had no way to send messages to people in other places. The phones were out no cell phone when we started the van and we knew the ARRL had emergency message forms. WE could see that there was a lot of equipment needed. So one by one as the club had m money we added the gear that was needed. When we were done we had 80 and 20 and 2 and 440, FRS, ATV on 2 meters, aircraft and Mississippi river tug boat communications and radio for police communications and even satellite communications that the Red Cross used several times.
Q. How did you create it? and how did you fund it?
A. Well as you can see it took a ton of work just to get it ready to drive! The steel studs in the sides were all rusted off and it needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. No one in the club knew anything about bodywork so we just started working. As you can see it turned out great. Ask of the funding was done with popcorn, hot dogs and burgers! That took a tremendous amount of work! We went to every town event for miles around
Q. How was it to be of service to support traditional emergency services?
A. We had a county radio number from our county sheriff. With that radio, we were able to talk to the sheriff, police and fire and ambulance. We had a mobile 2-meter repeater in the van and that was used at all of the disasters we went to
Q. Can you share a few stories about how it was helpful?
A. The Red Cross liked to see us arrive so we could send emergency telegrams for the people that were effected by the disaster. When the Red Cross did their damage assessment they used the FRS radio in the van, we had a much better antenna than they did so we had better communications. When we were at St. peter, minnesota, the storm had taken down their AM radio station tower. They were crying OH IF we only had our radio station. We asked them what had happened to it and they told us the storm took down the tower. I said no problem we can build you an antenna and they all laughed at me. I got several guys out, some were to get me anything that could be used to make an insulator. other guys had the job to get me wire, any kind of wire. We had them get the station engineer there and from him I got the frequency. Now that I knew that I could figure the length of a dipole. On the AM radio band, I knew it was going tone very long. That antenna zigged and zagged up and down the street for several blocks. When we connected the coax to the center insulator we told the station engineer to fire it up. He didn’t think it was going to work so he gave it very little power till he could tune it, then little by little he turned the power-up. They found that it really did work and that they had a larger coverage area than their tower did. Now I know the FCC requires the AM radio stations to use a vertical but I thought this was an emergency. As soon as their tower was back up they used it
Q. How and/or why did you retire it?
A. It happens to all clubs the members get older. Some tased away, some moved away, it got down to where there were just not enough of us to do it any more. Our youngest member was 70. That was five years ago. The van has been kept inside all the time and still looks as good as it did on the outside. It would be a great emergency com van for three stations, we had to much gear in but everything was used. It would work really good for one rig on 80 meters and one on 2 meters. There is one thing we wish we would have had and we were working on it, that is we wish we would have had a good vertical antenna one for 80 and one for 20. When we got there there were no trees left so putting up a dipole was hard. We would go around and find broken 2 X 4’s, nail them together to get the dipole up and lucky if it was ten feet off the ground but it worked. WE built some very heavy duty dimples they were made out of lightning arrester cable. We had a spool of 500 feet of rope but used the rope that had already been cut but if we need more we had it. A coffee pot would have been great to have, we made coffee in the microwave oven.
The story was shared on Martin Brossman Ham Radio page https://www.facebook.com/ki4cfs