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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