Initial Results from the Crew Radio Experiment

I’ve long thought that the on-block work of treeplanting could be better organized if each planter had their own radio. I think I’ve heard this idea arise convergently from other planters as well. Before this year’s season started I speculatively shopped around and discovered that radio technology has finally reached levels of cheapness to allow an experiment. With the approval of my crewboss, I sank 80 bones into a mail-order set of frs/grms-band basic hand held 2 way radios. At about $10 per planter, this is a genuinely affordable experiment. Thank you Chinese manufacturing and cheap global shipping.

Some results:

Benefits: Plenty and strong. Being in constant contact with your crewboss saves both of you a lot of time. Being in contact with fellow planters turns out to be a big advantage as well. I guess these results shouldn’t be surprising. But any new complication added to block workflow needs to justify itself relative to additional complications. I would say (with the caveats mentioned below) that crew radios overwhelmingly do so. On our last planting day we didn’t have a functioning radio network, and it was seriously frustrating to go through the traditional exchange:

person standing on the road: TOOOOOBYYYYY
toby (crewboss, planting in land): WHHHHAAAAAT?
person standing on the road: TOOOOBYYYY
toby (crewboss, planting in land): WHHHAAAAT?
person standing on the road: (walks away to try and figure out whatever it was on their own)

The radios are useful for all the things you would assume they would be: “I’ll be out of land in 20 minutes, where should I go?”; “should I be spacing off cedar naturals, or can I ignore them?”; “I’m low on pine, can somebody bring me a few boxes?”; “um, was I supposed to work right or left from the treeline?”; “when are we quitting?”; “hey my piece is finished and there’s no open land, do you mind if I plant in on your land until quitting time?”. Etc.

Battery protocol: The single biggest issue we’ve run in to. The units we’re using run on 3 AAAs, and aren’t rechargeable unless you’re using rechargeable batteries. We first handed them out to any planters who wanted one, thinking that they would be personally owned and maintained. They were inevitably left powered up in bags over night, and were mostly dead within days. Using cheap batteries they start to drain down to poor functioning within a day. Using brand-name batteries they seem to get something like 20+ hours of use before they start to go flaky. Less for the crewboss radio which is regularly transmitting. The protocol we’re using now is that one of a few people try to remember to collect them every evening and make sure they’re turned off and check the battery status. This is an obvious inconvenience at a time when people mostly want to zone out and sometimes doesn’t happen. AAA batteries aren’t cheap either, and require a trip to the store. It’s certainly worth the cost, but some one person has to actually buy the batteries and put them in the radio, and treeplanters are notoriously lazy off the block. The best option would probably be to have a crewboss with an expense account take care of collecting and battery-ing the radios, but unless the planting company could be convinced of the production benefits of supplying batteries to planters, that won’t happen. Based on the experience so far, I figure planting companies should be buying these things and issuing them as standard to their planters, and supplying batteries for them too, but that isn’t likely to happen any time soon.

Critical mass: Of our 8 radios, we’ve only managed to keep 4 or 5 in operation due to battery issues and the general inconvenience of distributing and carrying them. One goes to the crewboss, one to the supervisor (who on our contract in commonly on the block, doing supplementary crewbossing), and the others split between planters. That seems to be a sufficient network, but any less than 4 and it wouldn’t really work. The more people with powered up radios, the more worthwhile the system. The better distributed the radios across the block, the better as well.

Loss: The flagging tape pouches on the front of standard planting bags seems to be a convenient and loss-proof place to store them. Don’t clip them to your straps, trust me (at least not the model we’re using, which seems specifically designed to not be firmly secured to anything). One even managed to pop out of a back bag, which it was rattling around in. Both lost radios were found within 10 minutes of searching. The built-in clip is at least useful for wrapping some flagging tape around, to make them more obvious on the ground. And hey, the one time I lost mine it occured to me that if it took more than about 15 minutes of searching, it was so damn cheap to buy that it would be financially smarter just to leave it lost. A big difference from the $700 dollar business-band company-issued handhelds.

Safety: We haven’t had any debilitating accidents, but if we did a radio could be a different kind of whistle. Less reliable, but also much higher bandwidth. When you hear 3 blasts of a whistle, does that mean drop your bags and run to help a fallen planter, or does it mean there’s an angry bear on the block, and everybody should evacuate? On the other hand, if you’ve fallen off slash onto a stick and punctured yourself, did you remember to put fresh batteries in your radio last night? I figure radios could make a good safety supplement to whistles, but whistles are still where it’s at. And for what it’s worth, my preferred whistle protocol is: if you hear a whistle blast of any kind, go there. Somebody needs help wether it’s a cougar or a fracture. Not that either often happens. Treeplanting isn’t particularly acutely dangerous, whatever some people say. (Logging roads and chronic injuries are, but neither whistles nor crew radios will help you much there.)

Range: The packaging claims about a 5 mile range under “optimal conditions”. Depending on the topography, hill-side clear cuts could constitute optimal conditions (concave blocks, blocks on opposite sides of valleys) or sub-optimal (gullys, convex blocks, blocks on opposite sides of ridges). In practice range has been fine for what we do, spanning individual clearcuts without strain and even once between clearcuts which weren’t within inter-valley sight of each other. The one time we had them on 2 clearcuts separated by about 15 minutes of bad-road driving they had no connectivity, but that isn’t surprising.

Doubling up: I had assumed it would be a significant annoyance to our crewboss to have to carry and monitor both a company-issued hand-held and a crew radio. Turns out the company we’re planting for doesn’t really issue hand-held to it’s crewbosses anyway, so that obviously hasn’t been an issue.

Chatter: There’s been less inane chatter than I had assumed. Most of what there is is at the beginning and end of the day. Which is fine. If larger crews all had them, it might be more of an issue, but turning your radio off is, as a planter anyway, always an option.

Cross-talk: Working in relatively urban area as we are, there is occasional cross-talk from people like surveyors who are also using FRS-band radios. Switching to a more random channel than “1” (say, “2”) solves that.

Conclusions: If we can get the battery and issuance protocol figured out, these babies are golden. We’ve only kept a few working every day, but I figured they’ve already payed for themselves several times over in terms of total planter productivity increase.

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