The W4RAT 146.88 MHz analog repeater offers 24-hour autopatch service for active club members (join here!) Not familiar with autopatch or not sure how to use it? You're not alone. Autopatch fell out of favor once the popularity of cell phones took off in the mid to late 90's. In the 80's and early 90's, one could hear many autopatch calls during the evening drive time as people called home to check in with their spouses for any last minute fast food stops or grocery runs. Many calls to tow trucks, police, fire, and ambulance services have also been carried on the RATS autopatch through the years.
Today, it's a much more obscure function -- a lot of people know it's there but most hams that came into the hobby in the last 20 years have probably never heard an autopatch call. We'll try to demystify it a bit.
This capability remains available to fill the gaps in wireless phone coverage. The W4RAT repeater system covers a large area. Wireless phone service is spotty in some outlying communities and along the roads that connect them. Autopatch is there to provide an outbound telephone link when all else fails.
Types of Calls Permitted
Most short phone calls of a personal nature could be handled over the autopatch. Keep in mind that your calls are broadcast for all to hear, so you want to be careful of the kinds of information passed over the air and the type of language used. Music is a no-go on FM repeaters, and the same applies to autopatch calls. The likelihood of being placed on a musical hold rules out most phone calls to businesses.
Instead of directly calling a towing company, AAA, etc., it is likely easier and a better use of air time to call a friend or relative and have them make the necessary arrangements given your location. You can probably find someone on the air who is willing to serve as a callback number -- the autopatch does not take incoming calls.
You cannot use the autopatch for business purposes. Calling a client or your boss to let them know you're running late is a common example of what not to do on an autopatch. Using the autopatch to order a pizza for yourself or a club function is at best a questionable use of the service.
If you see an accident or a disabled vehicle and are out of the range of wireless service, you may use the autopatch to contact the local police or sheriff's office. If you're out in the middle of nowhere and get lost trying to get to a friend's house, you could use the autopatch to have them talk you back on course. And you could certainly use the autopatch to call a local ham friend and ask them to get on the repeater to have a QSO.
How to Dial a Call
Placing an autopatch call requires knowledge of the current members-only repeater control codes and the telephone number of the party to be called. Any radio with a working 12-key DTMF keypad can operate the autopatch.
The first few times you operate the autopatch, it might be helpful to jot down the exact codes you will need prior to dialing the call. From the member code list, you need either the speed dial code for a local emergency service or the autopatch manual dial code and full 10-digit phone number of the party you wish to reach. You should also make a note of the disconnect code - you'll need it to hang up the call.
All autopatch codes start with a DTMF star (*). The manual dial and disconnect codes are usually * plus three digits. To dial your call, you would begin transmitting, announce "this is (your call sign) accessing the autopatch" and then continue transmitting while you dial either the speed dial code or the manual dial code and telephone number. All of that should happen in the course of one single transmission. Do not drop your carrier between the manual dial code and the telephone number. It should be a single string of digits transmitted all at once.
The repeater will announce "auto patch ready" and after a brief pause you will hear a dial tone. The repeater will dial out your call. Wait for the distant party to answer.
When they pick up, it's a good idea to let them know you're calling from the autopatch. A good plain-English way is to start the call with "hi, this is (your name), I'm calling you from a two-way radio system, over." Here's probably the one instance in which it's appropriate to use the word "over" on an FM repeater: it's immensely helpful during an autopatch call (especially if both parties do it). Autopatch calls to not have the benefit of a courtesy tone and unlike a "normal" phone call, only one person can be heard at a time. "Over" acts as a bit of a flow control to prevent talking over one another.
If the other party doesn't answer after about a half dozen rings, or when you're done talking, transmit the autopatch disconnect code. The repeater will terminate the call and announce "auto patch down." Try your next call or announce "(your call sign) clear" to sign off.
International calls, calls to toll services (such as 900 numbers), and 911 calls are blocked at the controller. We do not currently block domestic long distance calls. The repeater's coverage area spans portions of at least four area codes. Plus, autopatch usage is so light and most calls are short enough so as to not generate substantial costs to the club. An occasional long distance call is not an issue, but the autopatch must not be used specifically to avoid toll charges from a home or wireless phone. If you wish to reimburse the club for the cost of a call through the autopatch system, contact the club treasurer.
Call Time Limits and Extensions
The autopatch has a time limit of 5 minutes for all calls, whether dialed manually or using one of the emergency speed dials. A call extend code is published and members are welcome to use it to extend the length of their call another five minutes if necessary. This code can be used more than once in a call and there is no actual limit to the length of an autopatch call through this system. That said, calls should be kept to the minimum practical duration.
The 5-minute time limit is not there to discourage longer calls. Its function is to shut down calls if the controlling station travels out of range, has an equipment issue, or otherwise cannot terminate the call. If nobody else has the autopatch control codes handy, the maximum amount of time the call (and subsequent dial tone or off-hook signals) will tie up the repeater is five minutes.
The repeater does not warn you when the five minutes is about to run out. Keep an eye on a clock and enter the extend code at any time. The code resets the timer so you have five minutes from the time you last entered the extend code.