Practice may not make you perfect, but it goes a long way toward making you ready, according to Tom Usher, amateur radio operator, kdøqkk.

Usher spent 25 minutes Oct. 10 assembling his 29-foot tripod and J Pole antenna at the Pacific Meramec Valley Amateur Radio Club (PMVARC) digital repeater site on Signal Hill at Mid-America Testing Laboratories in Catawissa.

In perfect fall weather, Usher and other amateur hams tuned their radios to frequency 147.18 to take part in a simulated emergency test where they practiced sending and receiving messages using emergency service protocol.

From New Haven, Sullivan, Pacific and Catawissa, they logged in with the Franklin County Amateur Radio Emergency Service director (FCARES) as they would do if a catastrophe crippled communications in the region.

Hams could take part in this test from anywhere, but Usher saw it as an opportunity to set up his temporary station on Signal Hill. At 873 feet above sea level, the J Pole antenna reached 903 feet. He connected two radios to a power supply and a speaker to each of the radios.

As a member of PMVARC and digital radio buff, he wanted to relay messages digitally, but was prepared for voice transmission in case his partner in the test was not set up for digital transmission.

At 10:02 a.m., the voice of Paul Chambers, FCARES director, nøbbd, opened the exercise and announced the protocol hams were to follow.

Chambers told hams assigned tactical calls such as Shelter 1, Supply, Transportation and Food Service and asked hams to prepare and send a message on a specific frequency.

After composing their message, hams called Net Control, advised they had a message, where it was to go and whether it would be digital or voice. They were assigned a second Simplex frequency to pass the message.

Usher was the first ham to check in for the test and after all the hams were checked in, he was assigned to receive the first message by voice. His second message, where he was the creator and transmitter of the message, went to Stacy Landers, waøzug, in New Haven, who could receive digitally.

Copies of all the messages sent and received in the test were forwarded to Chambers via email.

For Usher, the test from the PMVARC hilltop location had a twofold purpose.

“I’m doing it for geeky fun,” he said. “But basically I’m doing this for digital ham radio.”

It was the first step in installing a packet antenna and repeater at the PMVARC tower, which Chambers said will benefit the entire region.

“When they do that we (FCARES) will be able to reach St. Louis from here,” Chamber said.

The advantage of digital packet radio is it takes less air space and reduces errors.

“It’s ideal for more complicated messages like spelling out medications, which has to be precise,” Chambers said.

For Chambers, a ham since 1970, emergency radio service is a passion and it’s the reason he has kept his ham license active. He joined FCARES when Mike Guzy, kc9ooh, started it five years ago.

Two years ago, when Guzy decided to step down, he asked Chamber to take the lead.

FCARES hams meet once a month, usually at East Central College and hold a NET at 8 p.m. every Monday, which also is a training exercise.

Paul Hinrich, køtpy, offers a three-minute training session.

“It could be as simple as reminding hams to keep cooling fans on their radios and computers so the equipment doesn’t overheat when you need it,” Chambers said. “He (Hinrich) checks in the national traffic system every night and brings radiograms for us to pass to people closer to the recipient.”

Constant training is the key to success when disaster strikes, Chambers said.

“We have to be prepared,” he said. “If an earthquake struck it would take out all normal communications and cell towers would be packed to the point they’d be almost useless. Amateur radio has an unlimited number of frequencies that we can use around the world.”

Hams like Usher bring their portable antennas, radios and power to any location when a disaster strikes. As a requirement of their ham license they can never be paid for the service.