A year at the Quantum Technology Club would not be the same without the running of at least one big amateur radio special event station. Our members have amassed lots of experience of planning and executing special stations and we would love to share it with you.
This guide is not meant to be a definitive step-by-step guide, rather an introduction to all the things we wish somebody had told us when we started running them. By reading this you become aware of best practice and some of the pit-falls to avoid.
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What is a special event station?
A Special Event Station is a temporary amateur radio station set up to
publicise, commemorate, or celebrate an event.
Every year the Quantum Technology Club typically runs special event stations to promote EMF Camp, celebrate Lancashire Day, Churches and Chapels on the Air (CHOTA), International Marconi Day and raise awareness of the RNLI during SOS Radio Week.
In addition to these we run several one-off special event stations for a variety of causes.
Special event callsigns
Special event stations are typically run using special event callsigns that can only be obtained from Ofcom. They are free to apply for and can only be used for short periods of time (max. 28 days in one go). These callsigns all start with a ‘GB’ prefix and they can only be applied for by full licence holders.
When choosing a special event callsign, always select the callsign’s number and suffix letters very carefully. The letters should stand for something relevant, e.g. GB6IMD – International Marconi Day. The number may be irrelevant in some cases, but for others it could be very significant, e.g. GB1PSG – 1st Porthmadog Scout Group.
If you need an out-of-the-ordinary special event callsign, a ‘special’ special event callsign, that contains more than one number, or more/less than three letters (e.g. GB100SCOUTS for the hundredth anniversary of Scouts being established) you need to speak with Ofcom direct. Special special event callsigns can only be applied for by post and must be supported by evidence of the specialness of the event from the organisation whose event you will be publicising, commemorating, or celebrating.
It is important that you make applying for the callsign one of your top priorities. You do not want to spend money and effort publicising your event only to find that your desired callsign is not available.
However, once you have been issued with a special event callsign that is exclusively yours to reapply for as you wish for the following two years – nobody else can apply to use that callsign within that time frame. This is great because it enables you to use the same special event callsign, year after year, for annual events – it effectively becomes yours. Do be warned though, forget to reapply for it within the two years and it becomes available for anybody to apply for and you lose it.
Special event callsign conditions
The special event callsign is issued as a Notice of Variation to the applicant’s own personal callsign. This means that, whilst any UK amateur radio licence holder can operate a transceiver at the special event station, operation of the station is under the supervision of the NoV holder.
This is very handy as it enables clubs to give it’s Foundation and Intermediate licence holders valuable experience using higher powers, specialist equipment, new modes and bands that their licence forbids them from using. For this reason the NoV holder does have to be on-site whilst the station is operational.
Special event locations
Special event stations can be established and run from anywhere. However, one of the conditions of using a special event callsign is that the station must be accessible to members of the public. Exactly what this means is up for debate; are people expected to be able to walk in to the station, unannounced, off the street, or does it mean that you could get away with inviting select members of the public to the station?
We always take it to mean the former. Now this does not mean that you cannot set-up and run a special event station from somebody’s home, but there are other considerations to take into account like whether the house has public liability insurance for running this type of event and whether the health and safety risk assessment highlights too many issues to enable the station to run safely.
Corona-virus update: whilst the UK is in lock-down Ofcom have relaxed the requirement for stations using special event callsigns to be open to the public. This now means that special event stations can be run from the NoV holder's home without having to open the house to the public.
Raising money during special events
The main purpose of some special events is to raise money for a charity, or other good cause. This is allowed, but it is forbidden to ask for money over the air. We understand this to mean that we can tell the stations we work that we are a sponsored station and further details of the event can be found on our web site. Furthermore, if a station asks us how they can make a donation, or sponsor us, we again point them to our web site.
Publicising special event stations
There are lots of ways to promote a special event station to make sure as many people as possible are aware that you will be on the air. Failure to publicise the event may mean that there are fewer contacts made than you might have been expecting.
The local press can be contacted to show your support for a local event. This might include free newspapers, local regional papers, but also local radio and television stations. If they believe the event is particularly worthwhile covering, some media outlets will send out a reporter with a photographer, radio car, or television crew tgo your event.
Depending on the type of event you are running you might want to contact your national amateur radio magazines (RSGB, Practical Wireless and Radio User in the UK). The RSGB have two channels for publicising events, through their printed journal RadCom, or their GB2RS over-the-air news service broadcast at various time, on different frequencies, during most Sundays of the year.
Think outside the box though, if you are running an event to commemorate the opening of a stately home, for example, contact the organisation that runs the building if it is a National Trust, or English Heritage property. Why not contact the RNLI if you are running a special event station for SOS Radio Week.
If the event you are commemorating is technical, why not contact the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), or one of the other technical societies out there that have web sites and print regular journals.
You get the idea.
Social media is one of the most effective ways of raising interest in your event. There are loads of groups that host discussions on Facebook, for example. Become members of the relative amateur radio groups, such as the GB Radio Amateur Special Event Stations Group, and post news of your event on there.
Do pick your social media platform and groups wisely as you can get your message in front of a very targeted audience if you do it right. For example, if your event will be running a VHF station, find VHF/UHF related groups and post there. If you’re going to be running an FT8 station, again select the groups that will be most interested in working you.
And, again, don’t forget the likes of the National Trust, English Heritage and RNLI groups and pages, technical groups and so-on.
QRZ is often the amateur radio operator’s first port of call when they hear a special event call CQ, or when they see a callsign they don’t recognise. Make sure that you set up a page and make sure that you activate the logbook feature so that you can confirm contacts have been made – this is an alternative to eQSL as not everybody uses the latter.
As special event callsigns are recycled for different events, or licensed by different operators, over periods of time there may already be a QRZ page for the callsign you will be using. This is not ideal as that existing page may have details about a completely different event to yours on it. You can request the current owner of the page to relinquish their ownership of it and then you can add it to your account. Most of the time we have had no problems getting existing callsign pages relinquished – be polite and most will do it within hours for you.
Timing is everything
Timing is critical – publicise on social media too early and people will forget about your event, contact press and radio/tv stations too late and you’ll miss scheduled cut-off dates and won’t be included.
Choosing a venue
Things to bear in mind when selecting a venue include:
- Can you get permission to operate from there?
- Does the owner of the venue fully understand what you will be doing?
- Is the venue big enough for the station to operated safely whilst there are members of the public floating around?
- Is there space outside the venue to cordon off an area from the public to erect antennas?
- Does the venue have sufficient power to serve your needs? Think of this in terms of actual power, but also number of sockets and distance from the operating position.
- Will the venue be open when you need it to be? Don’t forget, you’ll need set-up time before the station goes live and break-down time after the station shuts down.
- Will there be tables and chairs available, or will you have to provide your own?
- Can your equipment, or the routing of cables, cause interference to any of the venue’s equipment?
- Can you distance your operating stations and antennas from each other to minimise interference to each other?
- How will you route cables out of the building?
- Can you put up/display publicity material for your group/event?
Convincing the venue owner this is a good idea
Most venue owners won’t know what amateur radio is, let alone what a special event station is. So how are you going to convince them that they want you to run a special event station at their venue?
- Approach them nice and early.
- Show them what you, or others if this is your first special event station, have done in the past.
- Explain carefully what you will be doing and what you will want of them.
- Emphasise that the special event station may attract valuable publicity for them.
- Reassure them that you have £10m public liability insurance (if your group is affiliated to the RSGB) for your activities – this puts many a mind at ease as they often do not know if they are insured for such events.
- Impress them by telling them that you will complete a health and safety risk assessment prior to confirming this as your venue. This is a legal requirement anyway and your insurance may be invalid if you have not checked for risks, or not put measures in place to adequately control them. Do not let them have your standard, one risk assessment covers all situations, version because all venues and events are unique and have their own specific risks. Complete a separate risk assessment for every event you do.
Put everything in writing
Once you have agreed with the owner of a venue that you can run your special event on their premises, confirm everything in writing – by email will usually suffice.
Make it clear what you have agreed the venue will provide, what you will provide, how many personnel you expect to have on-site and when you have agreed for the premises to be open and closed for you. Do not forget to include your public liability insurance certificate and health and safety risk assessment.
QSL cards are nice keepsake of working a special event station and many operators around the world collect them – but many do not and think they are a waste of time, space and money. So are you going to spend lots of money getting full colour QSL cards printed, spend lots of time printing out stickers to be stuck to them, and then pay for the postage only for many of them to be thrown in the bin?
Fortunately there are lots of alternatives to paper QSLing. Top of the list are eQSL and LOTW (the ARRL’s Logbook of the World) and QRZ,COM. These are very popular and eQSL even allows recipients to have their special event QSL cards printed out so they can put them in their collection – we use eQSL for this very reason.
eQSL is pretty quick and easy to setup and use. You can either get your logging software to automatically upload records to it as they are entered or you can import an ADIF file from a logbook application after the event.
One more benefit of using eQSL is that your station can claim awards. So if your one-day special event callsign were to make contacts with operators in one hundred different countries you can claim a certificate for it – along with many more.
If you are going to produce paper QSLs then do make sure that you are a member of the bureau that you intend to use to distribute your cards – nobody does this for free. There are several, the biggest one in the UK being that of the RSGB.
To ensure that you receive any paper QSL cards that stations send you, do not forget to send the RSGB’s special event QSL Manager some post-paid (make sure they have stamps on them) C5 envelopes capable of holding about fifty postcards. Otherwise the cards that get sent to you will end up in their bin after a period of time.
Establish a special event team
Planning, running and dealing with the aftermath of a special event can be very demanding – especially if there’s only one person to do it all. The secret is team-work.
Allocate jobs – if the team is small then you often find that team members will double, or event triple up, on roles:
- Who is going to transport everything to/from the event?
- Who is going to set everything up/break everything down?
- Who is going to operate, when, on what modes and what bands?
- Who is going to look after keeping the team nourished during the event?
- Who is going to look after publicity?
- Who is going to look after health and safety?
- Who is going to look after who needs to be where and when?
- Who is going to look after the logging and sorting out of QSL cards?
Plan the day
We’re sure everyone’s done this, or something similar, at some point – you plan an event, get there nice and early, get everything set up, only to discover that you are missing one vital Type-N to PL-259 adaptor. Problem is, you’re in Kiedler Forest and you live fifty miles away. Result: event scuppered, all for the want of an adaptor.
What do you need?
Planning is everything. So before the event make sure that you know:
- What transceivers you will be using, what cables they will need and what adaptors will be required.
- What accessories you will need for the transceivers to power them and enable them to operate the mode you want them to.
- What antennas you will be using, how they will be mounted and supported.
- What scripts, callsigns, locations, etc., will need to be programmed in to software and equipment (if applicable).
- How much cable you will need to reach antennas.
- What computers and software you will be using for digital modes and/or logging.
- What furniture will be needed.
- What protection you need; maybe a tent?
- Which safety items you need – RF burn hazard and trip hazard signs, earth stakes, tape/barriers to keep public away from antennas, cable trunking for when you have no choice to run cables across the floor, etc.
- Any tools and test equipment needed?
- What publicity materials will need to be produced/obtained.
- What refreshments you will need for your team during the event.
What do your team need to know?
Also, you need to ensure that, if your event is to run smoothly, your team knows:
- How to use the transceivers, accessories, computers and software before they turn up on-site.
- How to erect the antennas quickly and safely before they turn up on-site.
- How long it will take to setup the station to the point that you can start operating and allow the public in.
- How long it will take you to break the station down.
- What the locator and Worked All Britain squares are for those stations that collect this information – it’s really poor poor form having to tell a station to wait a couple of minutes whilst you find that information mid-contact.
- What bands will be open during your event – remember, these change from hour to hour during the day, but will also depend on what time of year the event is taking place and how far through the current solar cycle you are.
Who’s operating when and where?
Finally, you need to make sure that you have a roster that states:
- Who is in the set-up crew, when they need to be there, how long they have and what their specific jobs will be.
- Who will be operating, when, using what modes and on what bands. Make operating sessions last no more than an hour, or two at the most. The operators need a break, to walk around, top up with refreshments and, in many cases, have a look around the venue they are operating in. It’s amazing what operators can mention to the stations they are working once they have been around the venue.
- Who is in the break-down crew, when they need to be there, how long they have and what their specific jobs will be.
Very often we have had members in the set-up/break-down crews that are not available during the day to do any operating. Using folk like this enables as many members as possible to take part and feel they have a role in the club’s events.
Keep your team informed
Before the event, print out some information about the event you will be running and the venue you will be operating from. It’s important that the operating teams knows why they are operating and the significance of the venue. This will help them to engage the stations they are contacting and make the event more meaningful and worthwhile.
Just before the event make sure that team members know where the event is to be held and how to get there. A postcode for satnavs is a good idea and a route, from the likes of Google Maps, for those that don’t.
Make sure that operators know what they need to do on the day. It might be useful to give first-time special event operators a CQ script, showing them what a typical CQ call might sound like for this station, together with a set of operating procedures that could be adopted. Remember than the procedures will be different for 2m FM channelised operation, from the HF SSB and FT8 operation.
Don’t forget prompts for the operating positions on the day. These can include:
- A short fact sheet that operators can use during their contacts. Don’t use paragraphs of text, a short sentence that can be read during the contact is sufficient.
- The sheet should also contain a web address to refer stations to for further information and the method of QSL.
- A sheet of A4 paper folded in to three sections with both ends sellotaped together. One of the faces should contain the station’s callsign, location, locator and WAB square.
Engage your visitors
Nobody doubts that the primary focus of a special event station is to make contacts locally and/or around the world to promote, celebrate, or commemorate an event, or venue. However, some of the visitors to special event station maybe amateur radio operators of the future so it is important that we enage them.
When a visitor turns up, the last thing they want to see is the backs of peoples heads, talking to people they can’t see and typing meaningless content on to a computer. It’s not really very appealing at all to them. So how do we go about engaging these visitors, enthusing them and convincing them that, maybe, this is a hobby they could become involved in.
We have always tried to have as many members standing around on meet-and-greet duties as there are sitting in front of transceivers and computers. These need to be your best communicators, not wireless communicators, but sociable folk who find it easy to make small talk with people they have never met before.
It’s the job of these meeters and greeters to break down and make interesting what it is we are doing so that it doesn’t just appear to be a load of geeks, in hypothetical anoraks, operating equipment that doesn’t resemble anything a ‘normal’ person might have in their house.
Arrange an activity
Another way of engaging with your visitors is to actually get them involved in the day’s activities. How about a building project that takes a few minutes, but which gives them something to take away and keep.
If the venue you are operating in is family-friendly, then nothing appears to attract youngsters more than Morse code – and where youngsters go, their parents tend to follow. In the past we have had youngsters building simple Morse keys using a buzzer, battery, cable tie and few drawing pins. The project appeared in one of 2019’s RadCom magazines and costs £2-3 depending on where you buy the parts from. You can make a small charge to cover your costs, but kids love it and whilst they’re busy a meeter-and-greeter can be talking about the hobby to the youngster’s parents.
That’s one example of an activity you could use, but we’re sure you can come up with something yourself that is interesting to engage your visitors.
Keep your station’s visitors informed
You should consider producing handouts to be given to your station’s visitors. These need to explain what you are doing and why and should contain a brief introduction to what amateur radio is.
Do make sure that you include your web address, Facebook page, email addres and contact number if you use one so that folk can get back to you after the event for more information about the hobby – who knows, they may have been enthused enough to want to take the Foundation exam.
Try and make the leaflet engaging and include relevant imagery. A4 paper for inkjet printers is in plentiful supply, but it has a large surface area that folk are sorely tempted to fill with too much information. Try and use A5 paper which can be sourced from Amazon, or at your local stationery store – this will encourage you to be more economical with what you include and make your leaflet more professional.
As a club we have invested in an Epson printer that contains ink tanks rather than ink cartridges. These can be had for less than £150 now, but the cost of printing, even in full colour, can be less than 1.5p per sheet (compared to 9.9p of a typical standard inkjet printer).
Don’t forget, there are other sources of information to give away at your special events. The RSGB has a range of leaflets of various aspects of the hobby and we have always found Icom to be very helpful with publicity material too.
Four weeks before the event
It's always a good idea to contact the venue, about four weeks before the event, to remind them that you are coming - yes, some do forget. We always send them a copy of the paperwork we sent them when we confirmed the operation of the station, just in case they have lost it.
Run up to the event
You will need to keep promoting your special event, not only to your own members, but to the world around you. This is were your web site, club newsletter, members’ chat group and social media comes in to its own.
If people are interested in what you are doing, they will re-post what you are publishing and the word will spread; especially in the final weeks before your event.
Please leave it until you turn up on the day to discover that half the equipment/team doesn’t work, isn’t compatible with the other half, or isn’t fit for purpose. You have to expect there will be problems , so try and circumnavigate them by making sure you…
- Test all the equipment and antennas.
- Everyone knows what they’re supposed to be doing.
On the day
This is it, you’ve arrived at your big day; so what’s on the agenda:
- Hopefully you packed everything up in the vehicle/s the night before, so all you have to do is get the food out the fridge and off you go.
- Arrive nice and early to set everything up.
- Set-up and breakdown are where most of the accidents are likely to happen. Do pay attention to the health and safety of the team at all times, and don’t forget that of the venue’s staff who may be there getting themselves ready for day ahead too.
- Take plenty of photographs but remember, just like visitors to these events aren’t keen on looking at the back of people’s heads, they don’t look terribly inviting on websites, or in magazines either.
- Do keep the place tidy – this isn’t your venue and you’re not likely to get permission to operate from the venue again if they have to use their own cleaning staff to tidy up after you.
After the event
Having packed everything away and thanked the staff at the venue for being so accommodating do go home, put your feet up and open your favourite to drink with your takeway – nobody wants to cook after working on a special event all day.
If you want to be allowed to return and run another event at the venue it would be great to write/email the venue and thank them again for all their help and support.
Now you need to ring as much publicity out of the event as you can. Using the same channels as for your pre-event publicity, let the world know what you did, how well it went and highlight things like new members gained, new foundation candidates signed up and any other significant outcomes. Don’t forget to use those great photographs you took. Don’t forget to include the venue in the distribution list for your report as they may want to keep it for posterity and the archives, but more importantly they may want to include it in any publications they produce too.
Don’t forget to get the team together and think about what went well and things that could be improved on. It is important that this is done as close to the event as possible whilst it is all fresh in everybody’s mind.
Send out the QSL cards
Finally, don’t forget to get started on sending out the QSL cards.
If your logging software sent them automatically to the likes of eQSL, LOTW, or QRZ then that’s a job already done-and-dusted.
If you’re manually uploading to one of these electronic systems, then that’s usually just a case of uploading an ADIF file to your chosen system and that’s it – job done.
Don’t forget to keep checking for incoming QSL cards though. There may be some interesting ones turn up that you may want to print out.
If you are manually QSLing with paper cards, then make sure you get them out in a decent amount of time – loads of amateur radio operators complain that it takes ages, sometimes years to get their QSL cards. Make your event stand out from the crowd and get it sorted as soon as possible. That will make people want to work you future special events.
Start planning for next year’s event
You can start planning for next year’s event once the QSL cards are done. It doesn’t take a year to plan the nitty-gritty for the average special event station, but there is always usually something that you can start to get on with. One year we realised that organising our equipment better in more appropriately sized clearly labelled Really Useful Boxes would make the whole set-up and break-down process a lot easier. We got started on that straight away and it took a little time – but it worked.