Communication for large events like the Canal Run is critical. Information during the race is important from both a safety and practical standpoint. It helps the race coordinators determine when everyone is off the course, if there are any injuries or accidents, and helps answer questions that come up from volunteer around the course.
Since much of the Canal Run course doesn’t have cell phone coverage, radio is really the only effective way to communicate. For many years, amateur radio operators have been assisting with the event. The radio operators are volunteers, mostly from Superior Search and Rescue, the Houghton County Amateur Radio Emergency Services group, the Copper Country Radio Amateur Association, and the Husky Amateur Radio Club at Michigan Tech. Our radio operators hold a license from the Federal Communications Commission to operate a radio on the restricted amateur bands and most provide their own equipment.
The communication system used for the Canal Run is one of the more complicated systems Superior Search and Rescue (SSAR) uses. During a typical event or search, one or two different frequencies are required to communicate with all of the volunteers. However, the difficult terrain of the Canal Run course (in the shadow of hills and in-between buildings) requires four frequencies to be used by 17 radio operators at aid stations, race starts, the finish, and several other locations. The race communications operate on what is called a “directed net” with a Net Control operator. Each station may only talk to the Net Control operator- no one else. The Net Controller gathers information from each station and directs information to its destination. While it seems redundant- almost like a game of telephone- directed nets are actually very efficient when there are more then 5 or 6 radio operators and are used to keep people from talking on top of each other- a common problem with undirected nets. The Net Controller will also log all of the radio traffic on each frequency.
Interoperability or the ability to talk with other agencies is also an important component of the race communication system. In addition to the amateur radio operators, SSAR is able to communicate with the police and ambulance on the course to alert them to an incident or location that needs help. This is accomplished using the Michigan Public Safety Communication System (MPSCS) that use a digital trunked radio system and had common “talkgroups” for all agencies in Michigan specifically designed for use for multi-agency events and incidents.
In addition to the voice communication, SSAR uses GPS tracking devices to keep track of some of the key players in the event. These tracking devices use a radio protocol called APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System) to transmit the GPS location over the radio. In their communications trailer, a receiver will hear the location beacons and plot them on a map, making it easy to track the supply truck or the sweep without constantly having to ask for their location.
Good communication before and during the Canal Run help make the event successful for everyone involved.
:: This story was produced by Canal Run committee member Christopher Van Arsdale, who can be reached via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.