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STAYING CONNECTED Understanding The Basics Of Off-Road Communication Systems By Dan Sanchez Aside from a GPS and first aid kit, a good communication system is just as important for maintaining a high level of safety while off-roading. It’s one of the reasons why SCORE races have a sophisticated communication network in place, one that allows racers, teams, and others to relay vital information and to quickly render aid in an emergency situation. This network started with Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame inductee Bob Steinberger, who was the SCORE “Weatherman” for more than 30 years until his passing in 2017. It started back in 1972 Steinberger chased with Bill Stroppe and became frustrated after not being able to communicate with the race vehicle and put two-way radios in the team vehicles for their next race. To increase the signal strength and reach, Steinberger sent up two weather balloons with 500-ft of coax cable attached and managed to have a successful relay from their pit. Later, Steinberger founded P.C.I. Race Radios and his legacy continues with his son Scott. “We continue what my dad started and it’s a lot of work, but it’s all worth if we save just one life,” says Scott Steinberger, president of P.C.I. Race Radios and SCORE Weatherman. “Today there’s lots of new technology that has changed since my dad first started this, and it’s grown to where race teams continue to struggle to have better communication systems.” VHF and UHF Systems When one begins looking at a communication system, there are various kinds that can make it confusing to know what to get, and what works best in various situations. Furthermore, the type of system for a race team is different from what would be used for off-road enthusiasts who are simply wanting to stay in touch with other vehicles in their party. To begin with, the most popular type of system for general purposes are VHF and UHF band two-way radios. According to experts, a VHF system can handle lots of users, and a good antenna can offer excellent range for both racers and off-road enthusiasts. “Most desert race teams use VHF, which works well in open space. Because it works for the racers, many spectators and recreational users have also adopted the VHF band,” says Steve Gonzalez at Rugged Radios. “The SCORE network uses a VHF system that connects the various checkpoints, medics, and race teams on the VHF 150mh frequencies,” says Steinberger. “There are limitations, however, as you need to be at a higher altitude to cover more range.” According to Steinberger and Gonzalez, UHF band radios are typically used for where there are many obstructions such as in the city to go through buildings and steel. “For most off-road enthusiasts and racers, a VHF band system works much better in racing and outdoor situations, and dual-band units VHF/UHF that allow you to switch back and forth, aren’t as powerful,” says Steinberger. Satellite Systems While a good VHF system works well when you’re on an excursion, it’s a different story during a race where hundreds of people are crowding the airways. “There’s a lot of radio traffic during a SCORE race so the airwaves become saturated and getting through to your team or vehicle may not always work with a VHF system alone. Add the fact that you might find yourself in the middle of the desert with mountains blocking signals to your chase team, and things get interesting,” says Gonzalez. “This is one of the reasons why satellite communication systems, whether it’s a phone or messenger, have become popular additions to some race team’s communication equipment.” Many race vehicles and motorcycle riders will carry a satellite phone with them to use in emergencies in the instance they can’t communicate via VHF. “A small satellite phone allows them to call someone with a cellphone,” says Eric Talman, VP Solutions Engineer at Satellite Phone Store, who are SCORE Partners. “The location where chase teams and pits are situated is often too far off-grid for cellular service, so a satellite phone with an external antenna allows chase teams and race vehicles to be connected and ready for a call.” At first, satellite phones and the service were expensive, but now they’re relatively cost-effective and many teams use them. “Iridium satellite phones work pretty good and the rental prices went down enough of everyone to use,” says Steinberger. “Now, during a race, there are about 3,000 people calling on them, wanting to see what’s going on and some calls drop.” Newer MSAT-G2 systems are providing a better solution. “The MSAT-G2 is a mobile satellite radio platform the supports voice, data, and push-to-talk two-way radio communications,” says Talman. “The push-to-talk systems put emergency personnel directly in touch with racers who use it, allowing them to find out the level of emergency and make decisions based on better information at the source.” MSAT-G2 systems are easily visible on race vehicles as they have a small white dome mounted at the top or rear of a vehicle. While these are much more expensive for recreational off-road enthusiasts to use or need, they are the next level of communication that help racers and teams stay safe. “The MSAT-G2 systems offer much better coverage than VHF systems, but teams should really have both,” says Steinberger. “Now for a race team to have better communication, it’s best to have someone at home (in the U.S.) with good internet to track the vehicles on SCORE’s Live Tracking. That person should have the cell number of everyone on the team and feed info to them. In addition, when you call from a landline to a sat-phone you’re only paying for one stream.” GMRS Another new technology to hit the off-road motorsports industry is General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). This system is a land-mobile FM UHF radio service designed for short-distance two-way communication and requires a license in the United States. “GMRS uses specific channels designated for public use,” says Rugged Radio’s Gonzalez. “It’s like CB radio but GMRS is much more powerful, transmitting up to 50-watts, as compared to the 4-watts of a CB. In addition, GMRS is the most widely used recreational platform, which means, it’s compatible with lots of consumer radios, making it easy to use with the equipment you may already have.” Mobile Data Another advantage for racers and enthusiasts can be the use of mobile data satellite units. “Mobile data can be very useful in the field,” says Talman. “They provide a WiFi hotspot for teams who can log onto the internet and pull up maps or allow communication over text.” The ability to send a text on the course is always a great way to not clog communications and allows teams and family members to know they are okay. “A race car that stopped to change a flat or with minor trouble, can quickly send a text letting team members know they are okay,” says Steinberger. “Texting can help not to tie-up the Weatherman during a race and help keep frequencies open for more serious emergencies,” says Talman. Gonzalez and Talman also suggest there are smaller, and less expensive alternatives for recreational off-roading are also available, that with a service subscription allows you to test from anywhere in the world through an intuitive cell phone app. One of them is the Garmin InReach Mini, which sells for about $350 and can also be used in backpacking and Overlanding excursions. Improving The System “People hear of an accident and worry about their family members until they see who it is,” says Steinberger. “We often get spotty information at best but we get the news out as fast as we can. Even with all the latest forms of communication, watching or listening to the live stream is best with a cell phone and listening to a radio. PCI Race Radios also has a message board and radio site where people can ask for status and others can answer with information. We also have the “Weatherman” in Spanish that improves communication in the same way for locals in Mexico, and U.S. families who might understand Spanish better.” Some companies also have race support programs to aid teams in how to improve their communications. PCI Race Radios offers the services of the “Weatherman” network, and Rugged Radios offering racer support programs and installation tips, the Satellite Phone Store also offers support for racers with satellite systems, rentals, and more. “We’ve been going to SCORE races since 2012 and support SCORE and teams,” says Talman. “We often help teams with everything from a basic system, to an all-out command center and systems for their chase teams.” With an abundance of choices and networks available, there’s no reason any race team or off-road enthusiast should be left stranded or unable to call for help. As systems improve, communications will become easier and less expensive to operate and ultimately lead to greater safety overall. SJ SOURCES PCI Race Radios Rugged Radios Satellite Phone Store WEATHERMAN RELAY ETIQUETTE The PCI Weatherman relay channel is a very busy information stream on race day. We are communicating with dozens of people at any given time and air time is valuable, especially in an emergency. Understanding how to properly and efficiently use the radio will help all of us have better communications. Please share with your team. The primary goal, focus and responsibility of the Weatherman Relay Team on race day is the safety of the racers and chase teams - NOT status reports. If the channel is CODE RED - there is a medical emergency. Do not request status, updates or relay on this channel, it will be for medical emergencies only until Weatherman clears the Code Red. If you are a PCI customer you can call for non-emergency assistance on the PCI Customer Relay channel. Status requests are limited to overdue vehicles. Prepare your chase teams so they have an estimated time you should arrive at their location. Please do not call for status unless your vehicle is more than an hour overdue. If you do call in for a status, stick around. It may take some time to get back to you depending on workload, but it’s a waste of time for us to keep you in queue if you are going to just switch back to your channel. Invest in a hand held or second radio to monitor Weatherman if you only have one radio to wait and listen for your team. LISTEN before you speak. When you tune to a channel, listen for at least one minute to make sure you are not interrupting any conversations. If you know it is clear, know what you are going to say, press the PTT, wait two seconds, say the name of who you are calling, say who you are, then say what you need. This is an example of an efficient conversation on race day. “Weatherman, copy 55 Chase?” “55 Chase, Weatherman, go ahead” “Weatherman, 55 Chase, can you relay to our race truck on 151.490 that we are en route with a transmission?” “55 Chase, Weatherman, copy relay on 151.490 that you are en route with transmission.” Keep it short and simple and think before you speak. If you get nervous on the radio, say what you are going to say out loud before you press the PTT. Slow down. Yelling or speaking fast on the radio won’t do anyone favors. Identify yourself. When making a radio transmission, begin with who you are looking for, then who you are. Weatherman communicates with thousands of people on race day. We hear “Weatherman, do you copy” all the time on race day and it makes communications difficult and inefficient.  If you don’t hear back after two tries, you have two options. You can call out what you need in the dark or you can wait a few minutes and try again. Don’t be the idiot that is out there calling for someone relentlessly. If you are out of the race, the emergency has ended. Let people that need air time have it. Wait for lulls or breaks to coordinate your retrieval efforts. DNF’s should never be talking over those still in the race. Put yourself in their shoes. Just like your normal conversations, you cannot talk and listen at the same time. Don’t interrupt, they won’t hear you. Stuck Mic. It does no good to get on the radio and tell someone about it. When a radio is transmitting, they cannot hear you. If you don’t need to be on the radio, don’t be. If you’re just listening, unplug your mic and make sure you don’t sit on your hand held or put it in your pocket and key up the mic. PCI has magnetic microphone hang up clips that work great for chase trucks. If you’ve never listened to the Weatherman Relay stream online on race day, do it. There are dozens of “stuck mic” issues where a microphone is inadvertently keyed, ruining emergency communications for those in need. Make sure you stress how important this is to your teams - you could save a life. Know your frequency. Channel 7 is not your frequency. Be ready to tell Weatherman you need a relay on 151.625 to your chase crew. SJ

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