"Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is K4GUN. I've just fallen out of a tree stand while hunting. I'm injured and I need help."
That is what was heard on the Fauquier Amateur Radio Association repeater in Warrenton VA at 6:15 AM on 5 November of 2008. If you think hearing that on a local repeater was a shock, imagine what it was like to utter those words.
That morning started out as many do for me in the early part of November. I was hunting by myself on a 750 acre farm, about an hour from my home. At dawn, I was climbing up into a tree in which I had hung a stand. I had built a ladder on to the side of the tree by nailing 16" long pieces of 2x4 lumber on to the trunk, using 4" long 16D nails. As I climbed up the tree, one of these came loose and fell to the ground. I was still able to climb to the stand, but you'll see why I mention this in a moment.
Once I reached the level of the stand, I carefully checked it by putting one foot on the stand. I had a safety strap in my pocket and I always put it on before I sit down. As I stepped on to the stand, I thought I had a good hold on the tree when the stand fell away beneath me. I lost my grip and fell 20' backwards to the ground.
Remember that 2x4 with the 4 rusty nails sticking out of it? Well, I found it. It was impaled on my back with all 4 nails sticking into my back. They were roughly at the level of my shoulder blade, with one about 1/4" from my spine. The wind was knocked out of me and my entire body hurt. One nail seemed to be touching a rib. It was in this condition that I placed my "Mayday!" call.
W4NHJ took the lead in coordinating the rescue. He calmly asked about my condition and location. He got on the phone with the Rappahannock County Fire and Rescue department. He frequently came back on the air to ask me more questions about who's property I was on and where on it I was located.
The rest of the club kept the repeater clear. Only at the end did a couple of repeater regulars stumble on to what was happening. They quickly figured out there was a rescue in progress kept the frequency quiet for emergency traffic. Only myself and W4NHJ were on the air. As emergency crews approached, I was on the HT, telling them which pond to pass and which pasture to cut through to find me. In all, it took less than 30 minutes for them to find me.
There were two things that prompted me to get into amateur radio. One was to have reliable communications in the event of a disaster that made conventional communications impossible. Watching what happened on 9/11 and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina impressed that upon me. The other reason is because I like to hunt alone on this farm and there is no cell phone coverage. I wanted to be able to summon help if I ever became injured or needed other assistance. Since getting licensed, I've become involved in many other aspects of the hobby, but the core reasons still exist.
When buying my first radio, Steve W4SHG at Ham Radio Outlet listened to my needs and suggested my first radio should be two radios. One was an HT and the other was a mobile unit capable of both "cross band repeat" and "Locked band repeat". We'll get into the technical aspects of this shortly. He felt this was a measure of safety because the area where I hunt is not very close to any of the active repeaters in the Virginia Piedmont. I've since learned that I can hear three of them but can't reach any of them from the HT from all spots on the property.
The radios I purchased were the Yeasu VX6R and the Kenwood TM708A. The Kenwood is set up in my truck and is run by an auxiliary battery and feeds a Diamond 7900 antenna mounted in a stake pocket mount by Geotool.
Cross-band versus Locked-band repeat:
The Kenwood gives the user two different options in using the mobile rig as a repeater. The first is cross-band repeat (CBR). CBR gives the user the ability to transmit on a simplex frequency in the 70cm band and that signal is retransmitted on a 2 meter frequency. Because the Kenwood has dual TX and RX features, the user can program in a local repeater with the correct input/output offset. All signals from the club repeater that hit the Kenwood are instantly retransmitted on the designated 70 cm frequency.
Locked-band repeat (LBR) is similar, but it does not retransmit the incoming signals from the external source. That makes it more complicated to use. When programming your HT, you must create an odd-offset into a memory setting. Set it to transmit on the 70cm frequency to get the signal to your vehicle but listen directly to the repeater output that you're trying to reach.
So which is better? Well, CBR is easier to set up on the main unit and the HT. It is also a lot clearer on the RX side from the HT. CBR takes full advantage of the superior antenna system of the base vehicle. There is a problem though. CBR is illegal unless you modify your radio. The 70cm link back to your HT is never properly identified unless you set up an automatic ID system. I haven't yet found an easy way to do this. No amount of twisting the words of the rules will change this reality so unfortunately, if you chose to use CBR without devising some form of IDing device on the transmissions from your truck to your HT, you're in violation of FCC regulations.
So what have we learned?
Since this isn't an article about hunting, I'll spare you the comments about tree stand safety and which ones I violated. I will talk about being prepared. Emergencies can happen at any time. They can happen while you're hunting, hiking, fishing, biking or even just driving to the grocery store. Do you have the tools on hand to deal with that? If you live in an urban area, your cell phone may still be the most reliable method of getting help. If your travels take you off the beaten path, that may not be the case. Don't just look in the repeater guide. Get on the local repeaters and figure out which ones are active and which ones are essentially dead. If you're out of cell phone range, have a plan and be ready to execute it.
One big lesson to learn is to actually have your equipment on you. My HT was in my pocket and I was talking on it within 30 seconds of hitting the ground. I knew where it was and I knew the battery was fully charged. I knew my Locked-band repeat arrangement would work because I had practiced with it several times. I knew somebody would be listening to that repeater because I had used it before and knew some of the members. A breakdown at any of these points would have found me sitting at the base of that tree, in a considerable amount of pain for hours until I mustered up the strength and guts to stand up and walk. Had the nails been just an inch to the right, that might not have even been an option and I would have sat for hours until I was missed and a search party was sent.
So how did it end?
When the rescue squad found me, they attempted to remove the board from my back. They asked how my pain tolerance was and started trying to pull and pry the nails out. It didn't work. They gave up and loaded me on my side on to a backboard for transport back to the Faquier Country Hospital ER. The doctors finally got the board out and took x-rays. I broke no bones and was released in about 5 hours. All I have are bruises, scrapes a lump on the back of my head, a very sore shoulder and 4 puncture marks in my back. In all, I got off very lucky.
I have a new appreciation for amateur radio. We all hear the stories of how an operator helped a guy here or there. I live in the DC metro area and a lot of the local clubs lent a hand during 9/11 and others help in big weather emergencies. Sometimes though, its much more personal. This time, it was my emergency and the radio community came through better than I could have expected. I hope my experience reminds more people about the value of preparedness and the greatness of the people with whom we share this hobby.