Saturday, November 26, 2016

Being a SM ain't all its cracked up to be ...

Friday, Nov. 25, 2016 -- About halfway through my four terms as an ARRL section manager, I realized that ARRL HQ needs to have three or four long-time section managers (SMs) write about their experiences for the benefit of the newly elected SMs who have no clue what they've stepped in.

The longtime SM of Ohio used to call the Section Manager corps "The 71 Suckers Club," which at times, is a pretty accurate summary. With that said, let me say that those who serve do so because they enjoy Amateur Radio and the benefit the League brings to ham radio as a hobby.

The League offers recently elected/appointed SMs the opportunity to travel to Newington for a weekend of SM training. It's really a good experience and I highly recommend it to anyone who serves as SM. It usually happens around October. It's a busy Friday-Sunday, with time set aside to operate W1AW as a guest, which is pretty neat. Frankly, just being at ARRL HQ is a very neat experience.

As much as people complain about HQ, the truth I found is that everyone there understands who they work for -- the ARRL membership. There's no Ivory Tower in Newington, CT. Everyone I met and talked to had a passion for Amateur Radio -- well, almost. There was a fellow who was in charge of the affiliated clubs at HQ, and he was a most unpleasant fellow who seemed to have disdain for everyone. He seemed to be the type of guy who, if you were drowning, would throw you both ends of the rope. Of anyone at HQ, I had more complaints about this one individual than all the others combined. I ended up complaining to my director about his attitude and treatment of those who contacted him about their club affiliation issues.

One of the problems was that he never clearly explained the process of affiliation to clubs who applied for affiliation. What he failed to understand was that apply for affiliation was almost always a Big Deal -- it really puts a club on the map. Clubs who gain affiliation are justifyably proud of the accomplishment. With that said, the truth is the few benefits of affiliation are seldom used by the clubs. But that's not what's important, what's important is what ARRL affiliation means to those who seek it.

The main benefit is inclusion in the League's club database, which means anyone interested in finding a club in your area will find you. Other perks exist, but none of the clubs I was associated with bothered to take full advantage of them. But back to the subject at hand -- how to be a Section Manager.

BACKSEAT DRIVING. As a new SM, one thing you learn is that there's always those who believe they know your job better than you ever will. Nothing new about that, I know, comes with the territory. And honestly, I always listened to them because there was -- if you dug deep enough -- some good take-aways. And I would rather listen to the war stories and be attentive that piss them off and make them believe you don't give a damn (even when you don't).

One of the lessons you have to learn as Section Manager is that you are more than Joe Ham, W2IOU, who is an elected presentative of the Leauge; your physical presence represents the totality of the ARRL as an organization. I was flabbergasted at the first events I attended; it meant a lot to hams in the community when I attended their event, club meeting, etc.

And the ARRL has some pretty specific guidelines for SMs, and for good reason. They too are well aware of the important role an SM plays in each state. The SM sets the tone for the entire League's programs within the section.

One of the worst experiences I had as SM had to do with former SMs in my section who went to great pains to tell me the "right way" to do what I was doing. I appreciate ideas from those who went before me, but a guy can only take so much whining, you know?

My predecessor was a pill; for about the first year, he called me from time to time to bitch about something I wasn't doing or doing the way he did. Well, thanks for the info, see you down the log, you zipperhead! I was again appreciative of his input (the first dozen times), then he was forwarding complaints from people who didn't have the gonads to call or email me directly.

One of the former SMs was a Grade A ass from the git-go. Apparently, when I was elected he had sent me congrats in an email and I had failed to respond in a timely manner. I had heard from HQ that I won, but it had yet to be officially announced, and I preferred to let the League announce it before I began to acknowledge the emails.

This former SM pitched a fit with my predecessor even before I was in office about my tardy email. He showed up at the next hamfest and stood about 20 feet away next to a wall and glared at me. I mean, he just stood there and glared at me as though I was supposed to know who the hell he was. I arrived as SM-elect to the venue prior to the current SM, and I had no clue who this creepy OM was who was giving me the evil eye. I ignored him. Once the SM arrived, the former SM called him over to his perch and told him about my faux pas; the SM came over and told me I had a problem.

What? With whom? What the hell did I do?

You failed to acknowledge the email from the old SM, Bunky. He's pissed.

Oh? My fault.

After the SM and I talked, he finally came over to where we were. The first words out of his mouth were not an introduction, but simply "You never replied to my email!"

"And you are?" I asked, which prompted a furrowed brow response at my not knowing who the hell he was. He told me his name -- Larry Loser -- which he linked immediately to a prominent Silent Key in our state who was on the executive board at ARRL HQ a bazillion years ago, and who was his best friend (before he was SK I assumed. You never know for sure about these things).

For the next couple of years, Larry spent more time bitching about me to HQ than he did ever talking to me in person or on the phone. He demanded I attend his club meeting and give a presentation; he proudly told me had visited at least one meeting of every affiliated ham club in the state "back in his day" (of course there were 9 affiliated clubs at the time).

He was on my ass about the guy I appointed to be the Section Emergency Coordinator (SEC); he didn't like him, and blah blah blah! ARES is going to hell in a handbasket! What was I thinking! For the next year he continued to spread his "positive" view of life and ham radio to me every chance he got. I did decide to replace the SEC, and Larry apparently assumed he would be on my short list. Actually, he was not -- state emergency management folks had asked to avoid giving him that appointment. I ended up appointing a Technician-class ham who had much more EM experience than ham experience to be the SEC -- a guy from Larry's county no less. Larry was livid to say the least. He raised such a stink that the director and I decided to meet go visit Larry and take him to dinner. It was a long trip for a lot of trouble; the director basically told him my decision stood.

Q: NAME THE ARRL'S TOP FIELD PROGRAM? Quick! -- Name the ARRL's most important field program.

The Official Observer program? The volunteer examiners? Technical help? The National Traffic System? Instructors?

While they are all very, very important, the most important ARRL field program is ARES.

This isn't true in every section, of course, but in mine, ARES was the program that required the greatest amount of my time and effort.

I estimate 10-15 percent of licensed amateurs are active in ARES (you don't even need to be an ARRL member to participate in ARES). Why is ARES important, you ask? Aren't these guys just wanna-be first-responders? Arent' they just going to get in the way?

They may be some of all of the above. But mostly, ARES members are volunteers who are trying to use their communication skills to work in their communities. And it was the ARES program that consumed most of my time.

And what made ARES valuable to each community was also what made it something akin to herding cats at the section level. ARES is (at least in my state) organized from the ground up. ARES groups are organized and operate as independent groups who have a fairly loose affiliation with the section ARES organization.

As state ARES leadership, we have to understand we're working with volunteers who in most cases have a better understanding of what local needs are than we do. Each ARES group must define their mission and served agency or agencies. They must develop -- and in some cases, create -- relationships with served agencies in their community.

At the state level, we cannot do that for them -- though one of the most common requests I had was for a letter from me "telling" local first-responders and/or elected officials that they should/must work with their local ARES group.

The biggest problem with ARES were the instances where well-meaning volunteers either over-promised or under-delivered their services to local agencies. In the case of a former Emergency Coordinator in my county, the poor sap ended up pissing off the EMS director, police chief and fire chiefs, who were up in arms asking the top county official to ban the guy from pestering them.  He actually did ban him from working for those agencies. The episode ruined the name  "ARES" in our county for more than a decade. Those of us who were ARES volunteers dropped the name but we volunteered under the local EM flag (and absolutely NO mention of ARES -- ever).

The abilities of ARES groups varied widely across the state. When you work with loosely affiliated autonomous groups, that's the nature of how things work. And early on in my Section Manager career, I realized that all of these ARES groups were working independently of one another. In many cases, they were each working to solve similar or identical problems. I saw it time and time again. My SEC wouldn't do it, but I decided to create an annual event to allow ARES groups and leaders to meet; a summit or conference to share ideas and network. It had never been done and was met with some skepticism. I talked it up for most of a year while planning it. With the help of my wife and kids, along with some local volunteers, we pulled it off and launched was became a beneficial annual event. We had forums at the event, but the most useful parts were the breaks -- when individuals had time to network.

DOWNSIDE OF GROUND-UP MANAGEMENT. As Section Manager, I was the top of the section management. I had a top-notch SEC and he had a number of assistants, and it made things run well. As we went on, ARES grew and became more efficient, but retained its ground-up focus. One of the never-completed efforts I began was to try to build a statewide ARES database of membership and capabilities -- not a very popular idea among the rank and file membership.

There was a lot of suspicions about such a database, particularly in rural parts of the state. This resistance had a long history; in fact, it damn near destroyed the program a couple dozen years earlier, according to the SEC at the time. In the wake of the near-revolution in the ARES program, he decided the best solution was to keep ARES records local, with the county EC. And that's how it had been since, which meant we had no real indicator of how many volunteers we had or their capabilities.

Did we really need such a database? You could argue that we did not. Ninety-nine percent of emergency communications work by ARES is local, most of it tactical in nature. We weren't going to build a roster or ask anyone to "deploy" somewhere. My sole intent was to get a handle on numbers and capabilities. I can't tell you how many elected officials asked how many volunteers we had, and it was at best a wild-ass guestimate.

Our volunteers would not and did not tolerate "orders" from "on high." As a result, we had to be careful about how things were worded in emails so they didn't sound like anything more than requests. I spent a good amount of time defusing incorrect assumptions about the intent and tone of emails inside the ARES program.

Other states had quasi-professional ARES groups with official recognition. We would never reach that level in my state, particularly if it required background checks. Most members would have walked had background checks been a requirement.

But background checks would have been appropriate, and would have weeded out some bad apples who caused us some embarrasment. One ARES official was arrested on child porn charges under my watch. He had prior arrests that would have cued us in to a possible issue in the future. A background check would have also identified a convicted sex offender who wound up receiving a high-level ARES appointment.

I had to strip the man of his appointment, and send his EC and DEC a letter about it. His DEC called me about it, just about to bite my head off. I finally had to explain the complete nature of his past offenses. The DEC went to the man to ask if any of it was true; every bit of it was true. It was a bitter pill for all of us to swallow because the man was a good volunteer in an area that lacked volunteers. I had no real choice; I had checked with HQ about this but already knew what I would be required to do.

ARES: A PAPER TIGER? There's a percentage of people involved in ARES who are glory-seekers; they want the official title, an official badge. They want to volunteer, but they also want to be see as saviors via ham radio. The percentage is small, but they can make life difficult for the rest of us who only want to volunteer to help our communities. But memories are a lasting thing ... there are local governments who "still " remember the crap caused by a well-meaning ham, and who want nothing to do with ham radio because of it.

ARES varies from state to state and county to county. If I were to do it all over again, I would turn ARES over completely to the SEC. I spent too much time on it. Is it important? Yeah, it is. But ARES ended up consuming completely my enjoyment of ham radio, and that ended up not being much fun anymore.

BURNOUT OR BURNED UP? At the time my final term as Section Manager ended, I was mostly a ham in name only. My only radio activity was the state ARES and traffic nets. No contests, no rag chews. This isn't an uncommon occurrence among SMs I found. Seems that in many cases, the longer you serve, the less time you spend on the air. Funny how that works.

So yeah, all I have to do is recount my years in office and I'm even more certain I will not throw my hat in the ring for any ARRL election in the near or distant future.

One turn in the barrel is enough.


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