Category Archives: Emcomm

Thoughts on Remote Station dependencies in Emergency Use

Whether Emcomm, Freecomm, or just for personal use, can a radio amateur depend on a remote station when the “chips are down?”

There are some compelling reasons that a remote station would be a useful tool in an emergency.  Whether it is to access a station unaffected by a localized emergency event, whether it is to gain a high performance remote station’s capabilities while being relatively mobile, through concepts like minimizing personal risk through DF (direction finding) & retaliation in a confrontational emergency – there are dozens of rationales making access to a remote station a consideration. Personally I find the idea a single operator might be able to access any one of several remote stations compelling.

By definition remoting a station requires the operator to establish a link from their location to the remote station.  While there are several types of connections available the contemporary remote station depends largely on internet connectivity to create the “bridge” between the operator and the remote station.

I’d like to talk about this ‘internet bridge’ in general reliability terms.

Robustness, Reliability and Latency are the keywords to define what works best.  Most Robust, Most Reliable and Lowest Stable Latency are the goals we need for an effective remote operation.

All current solutions depend on our operator to remote station bridge traversing multiple internet connections.

Often the most Robust, Reliable and Lowest Latency is technically complex and involved.

Largely solutions fall into a couple classes:

  • Direct Login – where the operator directly does a login to the remote station.  These are fairly simple, but often have data throughput issues and often require dedicated hardware at both ends.  The setups may be technically more challenging than any challenge in actual use.  (Geeky to configure, but easier to run later.)

 

  • VPN Tunnel – where an internet tunnel is created between the operator and the remote station.  These are more complex to setup, often requiring special software/hardware, but largely are workable.  A lot of folk find this solution more Geeky than they are ready to undertake.

 

  • Brokered Connections – basically allows the ease of an Direct Login brokering behind the scenes the advantages of a VPN Tunnel.  Basically the operator (and radios at the remote station) end up all connected to a server service that then gets the operator and remote station pushed off to their own VPN.  When they want to renegotiate a new connection the server service is called back in to handle those new negotiations.  Actual traffic doesn’t pass through the server service (that would be wasteful and add too much latency) but the service provides some levels of overwatch.  FlexRadio’s SmartLink is the widest known amateur radio Broker Connection product.

Some solutions require the remote station to have a computer interfacing towards the wider internet, others allow station components to interface directly to the internet.

The remote station interface computer can range from a separate PC class machine to a dedicated processor integral in perhaps a router (thinking VPN here folks) or even a board-type computer like a dedicated Raspberry-Pi acting as the interface.

If you visualize this remote station to operator ‘bridge’ from end to end, many components are single, dedicated, unique to that ‘bridge.’  These are often called “single points of failure,” meaning that if they fail the entire system will fail.  You can do a lot of research on “single points of failure” and suggest searching on it (you might want to use the “SPOF” shorthand and “single point of failure mitigation” to get a start on analysis/solutions.)

There is another consideration concerning the Robustness of parts of the ‘bridge.’  While we try to build our remote station ‘bridge’ using the most robust components we normally frame the expected reliability under the concept that whole system is only as good as it’s weakest link.

Actually the whole system – that ‘bridge’ – isn’t even as good as the weakest link.  Reliability Engineers multiply each uptime percentage with all the other SPOF reliability factors to get an overall system reliability prediction (see Lusser’s Law.)  This means we shouldn’t consider a ‘bridge’ 95% reliable that crosses say seven different 95% reliable SPOFs, rather we should consider that ‘bridge’ only roughly 70% reliable (the product of the seven 95% rounded off).

Actually this sort of math is fairly tedious and may only offer a reliability indicator in the end for our purposes, as we seldom have actual measured individual reliability factors.  One certainly wouldn’t want to build a reliability prediction based on marketing claims – that is why we intuitively put more stock into the real world experiences we can get information on.

A lot of Emcomm/Freecom station address the know SPOFs that face an emergency station – redundant gear, radios, power, manual paperwork/procedures to replace the automated ones, repair supplies & tools, and maybe even a cached complete redundant station in a different location in case the main station was damaged.

Things quickly get complicated when we remote though.  It is a lot harder to say swap in a good antenna switch when lightening damaged our usual switch when we are operating remote.  Like it isn’t likely to happen without feet on the ground at the station itself.

Then can we depend on traversing the WWW Internet to complete our ‘bridge?’

The impetuous to write this article has been a rare outage in Microsoft’s Azure, the backend product behind FlexRadio’s SmartLink.  SmartLink became unusable for part of day when lightening created a power surge that damaged the cooling in a major Microsoft Azure datacenter.  The loss of cooling led to the servers protecting themselves and going offline.  While established SmartLink ‘bridges’ appeared unaffected, there was a loss in SmartLink’s brokering new connections.  Establishing new remote connections via SmartLink wasn’t possible.

That brief outage led to a lot of thinking about whether a remote station is a good Emcomm/Freecom solution?

In my case I do keep a SoftEther VPN backup in the ready.

That is a Parallel alternative to the brokered SmartLink connection.

Parallel systems improve overall reliability with every completely separate parallel system available.

Mathematically say we have three 95% options we can calculate the overall reliability using the formula

Overall Reliability = 1-(first system’s failure rate x next system’s failure rate….)

That would give us in our example

Overall Reliability = 1-(5% x 5% x 5%) which equals 99.9875% calculated Overall Reliability

(If you think you’d like to get into more on this subject, including guidelines on how to calculate combined series/parallel system reliabilities I can suggest http://reliawiki.org/index.php/RBDs_and_Analytical_System_Reliability for a starting point.)

The math should guide us – if we have truly parallel redundancy we minimize the SPOFs we can control.

The remaining wildcard is how reliable we can consider the WWW Internet in an Emcomm/Freecom situation?

Whether the internet is interrupted by the emergency event or is disrupted separately, can we depend it to allow our proposed Emcomm/Freecom remote operations?

Recently in the amateur radio news the MARS folks have announced they want their people to both have the capabilities to operate and drill without internet connectivity.  As a great many MARS stations use a computer, they have asked that this computer be ‘air gapped’ – meaning physically disconnected from the internet.

I’m thinking it would be best practice that any Emcomm/Freecom remote station also have a parallel system to ‘bridge’ between operator and the remote station that is also fully ‘air gapped.’

Otherwise my take is we are just fooling ourselves as the greatest part of the ‘bridge’ is across systems & hardware we neither control or can access.  In most cases we may note be able to even figure out exactly what the ‘bridge’ topography actually is.

If that ‘bridge’ topography is altered to bypass damaged components (or for other reasons) it may pick up an unacceptable latency compromising our ability to operate remote.

In a future post I’ll cover ideas on possibilities for an “air gapped bridge.”

73

Steve
K9ZW

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New FREECOM perfect radio – AnyTone Tech TERMN-8R Dual Band Radio

AnyTone Termn-8R Mega-HT

Just ordered a new handheld: AnyTone Tech TERMN-8R Dual Band Radio.

The TERMN-8R includes built-in GMRS and MURS modes with 23 GMRS channels and 5 MURS Channels. The TERMN-8R is FCC Certified for Part 90 and Part 95 usage. The TERMN-8R is able to Transmit and Receive fully on Narrowband (12.5kHz).

The TERMN-8R is one of the most flexible radios available, it can receive transmissions on 6 Different Bands. It can receive on UHF (400-520MHz), VHF (136-174MHz), Aircraft AM (108-136MHz), FM Broadcasts (64-108MHz), Short-Wave AM (2.3-30MHz), and AM Broadcasts (520-1710kHz). Plus NOAA

The TERMN-8R has two built-in receivers (full duplex). You can receive two signals at the same time; you can even transmit and scan (or receive) at the same time! The TERMN-8R also allows you to use your radio as a cross band repeater (VHF/UHF or UHF/VHF).

and much more. Arrives to the K9ZW Shack Wednesday.

73

Steve
K9ZW

 

EDIT March 29th 2015

Got busy and the radio sat unopened.  To my disappointment the radio is unusable, having been produced with a faulty antenna socket (lacks the required threads).  Very suspect, as how could the raid have passed Quality Control?  And how could it have even been tested once assembled?

 

Anytone Termn-8R missing threads

Anytone Termn-8R missing threads

The radio has gone back for a refund.  I cannot afford to depend on gear that hasn’t even had basic QC performed.

 

73

Steve
K9ZW

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Sudden Radio Silence in High Risk Scenarios

At Boston we’ve ben attacked as a nation by a bomber.

Our prayers and thoughts are with those killed and injured, and their families.

Our heartfelt thank you and admiration goes out to those who responded, especially as they really didn’t know if they themselves were safe from an additional bombing.

From the news one item dealing with RF jumped out – the Cell Phone Network was instantly taken down by authorities to prevent its use as a trigger for any additional bombs.

Bombs, or IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) if you prefer, are typically controlled in two ways:

  • Time
  • Trigger

For Time you can imagine the electronic, mechanical, or chemical functional equivalent of a “fuse.”  Once the fuse is lit, the bomb will be set off at a set period of time afterwards.  The timer can be internal or external, but the functional distinction of a Time Bomb is the device is exploded based on Time as the primary criteria.

For Trigger devices there may be manual control (pull a string, a trip-wire, or hit the detonator with an impact), electronic control (wires back to detonator control box),  a conditional control (goes off when stepped on, moved, opened, when wet, or any other a number of sensor based criteria), radio control (think of the door lock button on your car’s key fob, or perhaps its own cell phone or other receiver), or other set-off methods.  The main criteria of Trigger is that external stimulus is needed to set the bomb off.

There are combinations of Time and Trigger – the combinations are endless.

As radio amateurs we’re interested in the Trigger by Radio.  In the Boston case authorities feared/theorized that the cell phone network was a potential Trigger and for safety they shut it down.

In the videos released I didn’t spot any first responders, police, fire or security on radios, though it is unclear if radio silence was being enforced.

Often used in warfare, there are jamming countermeasures that might be deployed, which deny the use of the RF spectrum as a Trigger.  Some variations are intended to set off the RF based Trigger exploding a device from a stand-off situation.

The cowards who did the Boston bombings very likely may have controlled the bombs by cell phone.

In a situation like this bombing one has to reflect if keying up an HT is very smart – at least until the area is searched for additional devices & cleared.  If the enemy has left a tiered pattern of devices the RF from an HT may be the next device’s Trigger.

Temporary self imposed Radio Silence in High Risk Scenarios may be needed until the “all clear” is given.

“Certainly much more will come to light about the remote Cell Phone detonation of the devices, over the next few days and weeks.

Again our prayers and thoughts are with those killed and injured, and their families.

73

Steve
K9ZW

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Why I only do Indepependent Personal Emcomm….

I’ve been asked why I limit my Emergency Communications involvement to little more than Personal Preparedness?

There is a whole raft of reasons:

Staying off lists.

I’m not interested in being on targeted lists.  In the best of times they lead to requests and demands I may have never intended to offer my services for, and in the worst of times they are ready-made radio confiscation lists.  Perhaps having a bit of  a background in doing the government side of working lists & information has made me edgy, as I basically want to keep my “private citizen, not involved” status whenever possible.

Family, neighbors, coworkers and community come first.

I don’t want to have some semi-official status pulling me away from doing what I have committed to do first – that is taking the best care & contributing where I can for Family, Neighbors, Coworkers and my very local Community first.

Not interested in “playing army” having really been a Soldier.

A real put-off is the paramilitary feel and games some parts of organized Emcomm have taken on.  While I understand the need for discipline and a standard methodology, I have enough experience at the real military that I’m not going to play around pretending I am still in service.

There are other forms of organization, motivation and coordination that can work for a volunteer group rather than the paramilitary model.

Just because you’re licensed longer, take more meds, and have plenty of spare time doesn’t mean I can trust your leadership.

One of the ways people arrive in leadership in many Emcomm groups is to have the time available to them.  This often means the energetic young leaders are expected to follow good folk who circumstances have put a lot of time in their laps.  Not every everyone who has retired, happens to be out of work, or is medically off work, makes a leader a volunteer can trust.  Many are great folks having their first stab at leading volunteers, which can be rather “interesting.”  Unfortunately some are prone to leadership flaws that keep them from being effective.

Demands that I compromise personal safety by disarming to help Emcomm are irresponsible demands.

This is a personal pet peeve.  Maybe these Emcomm Leaders don’t understand he life experiences I have had that leads me to select appropriate protection when prudent, but I am not delegating my individual personal safety to them.  Sitting back in their grant money funded Emcomm bunkers one could argue that they don’t even have enough skin in the game to say anything at all how a rover or home based Emcomm volunteer keeps themselves safe.

This demand to disarm by Emcomm crosses an non-negotiable infringement on how I keep myself safe, and I am certainly not altering my stance to volunteer.

Knowing the games played to place truthful information flow under political control, can a person keep their integrity intact in organized Emcomm?

Time has leaked out so much about the attempts to control information during Katrina – when cellphone systems were shut down to meet information control goals, that one wonders if  they can ethically be part of any repeat?  The moves to obscured transmissions and encrypted internet type traffic for Emcomm is not all about getting the information out there, is it?

I really didn’t get into this hobby to play traffic cop.

I love too much the varied aspects of Amateur Radio and originally became involved for technical interests with a special interest in the old HF long distance aviation navigation system for overseas flights.  I’ve built some of my own gear and have experimented with leading edge (and “bleeding edge”) gear throughout the 20 plus years I’ve been involved.

It wasn’t a civic duty as a focus that drew me to amateur radio.

So what do I do?  Independent Emcomm a.ka. “Freecom”

There is a lot an individual can do to be an Independent Emcomm ready – a Freecom Amateur.  I’d taken almost every ARRL pre-FEMA on-line course, have built up a very modest but well proven portable station and have kept abreast of the latest in Emcomm.

Having a generator and batteries to operate off grid, a selection of portable antennas, and enough gear to go to the field is useful.

Most important though is gaining enough knowledge and technical references to build & repair gear.  And to improvise.

All of this is a lot of fun – from building transceivers to satellite antennas to mobile-shack accessories.

All without attending a meeting, a drill or playing games.

73

Steve
K9ZW

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Personal Emergency Communication Preparedness for a Modern Radio Amateur the Freecomm Way

What is the Radio Amateur’s responsibility for Personal Emergency Communication Preparedness?

Yeah, let’s get that answered and out of the way.

In absolutes their responsibility is “none” – zero, nada, zilch – none.

Personal Emergency Communications Preparedness, even for those of us who are ARRL members, is not a requirement.

[ Wipe Brow and Sigh here ]

That out of the way, it would be an extraordinary Radio Amateur who didn’t have some level of interest in Personal Emergency Communication Preparedness.

That interest could range from simply being glad there are ARES/RACES Groups, to having a grid-independent multi-mode station with portable personal go-packs.

What you do is completely up to your interests, resources, whims and desires.

Some years ago the Freecomm idea of active Personal Emergency Communication Preparedness without the formal structures & obligations was floated.

As a response to the increasing professionalization of existing Emcomm organizations the Freecomm idea is to share techniques, operating pricinples and ideas, without an imposed hierarchy and operating procedure.

Freecomm is most able to use innovative techniques and adaptive structure to accomplish Amateur Radio’s emergency communication desires, where Emcomm is about meeting the served agencies’ requirements in the ways & methods they dictate.

It could be argued that Freecomm is Emergency Communications for the True Patriots in our society.

Very curious what readers think of the distinction – am I making too much of the Freecomm/Emcomm difference, or is it as important as I’m seeing?

Comments welcome,

73

Steve
K9ZW

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KB9MWR Speaks on “ARES/RACES is a Waste”

Steve KB9MWR makes some very valid observations on the ARES/RACES situation:

Everyone’s opinion on ARES/RACES will differ, but Steve KB9MWR has captured many of the issues with ARES/RACES and “Paraprofessional Emcomm” accurately in his presentation.

His points are 100% a fit with why I have been advocating the self-preparation plan Freecom as a replacement for Emcomm.

73

Steve
K9ZW

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