punkwalrus (punkwalrus) wrote,

Bug in my ear

I was recently reminded about old FanTek security and how we used to communicate.

When I started with FanTek, it was because I was with our high school SF&F club, and we had a surplus from the year before. Normally we did two just sci-fi cons: Balticon and Disclave where our fund-raising (such as it was) paid for registration and hotel (or at least most of the hotel bill). But in 1985, we had enough for a third con, which I selected from the back of "Dragon Magazine." It was Evecon 2, and was local (Tysons Westpark), which solved the "how do we afford a hotel room?" issue. I went, saw strange people, and got the fanzine "The Castle" until I went back for Evecon 4 as one of their guest artists.

My first intro into FanTek security came during Evecon 4 because I was sharing crash space with them and like 20 other volunteers. At the time, they communicated via headset radio, and there were two models: a headpiece with mic and a separate pack that clipped onto a belt. The newer models were an "all-in-one" unit that just strapped onto your head like a big set of headphones. Since the belt clips has structural problems, the headsets were favored for many years afterward until we got an actual radio license and real walk-talkies and a CB.

A lot of FanTek security originally came from Technicon, which is Virginia Tech's sci-fi/gamining/anime con. This later accreted people one by one on a random basis as sci-fi cons had their heyday in the 1980s and 90s. Then a mass infusion of comic and gaming people came when we moved to "Fredneck" (Frederick, Maryland). Most of the hangers on after FanTek stopped doing conventions spilled over to TCEP and Katsucon.

But back to the headsets. They operated at 49.845 mhz as a frequency, which at the time (late 1980s) was one of 5 wireless channel bands available to the public which also included baby monitors, children's spy toys, intercoms, and even cheap cordless phones. At the time, many of these devices had an "A/B" switch or "1-5" for the fancy ones in case they bled over into another wireless system.

And they did.

I got my first headset as a "Brucemas" present in 1987 while I was living with Bruce and Cheryl. My very own security headset! Thanks, Bruce! Sadly, it got damaged due to a security incident I will describe in a bit. But Bruce wanted to test the range of the newer headsets, so a bunch of us left the house and went in 4 opposite cardinal directions.

I barely got a block down Fort Hunt road, when someone's cheap cordless phone was picked up in my left ear. I heard, extremely clearly, a woman describe some massive personal and medical procedure involving things one should not have growing around their unmentionables. I tried to tell the lady to stop, but the conversation was one-way, as she kept going unabated. No one else got this conversation, but they said I was blocked quicker than the other people. The range seemed to be about 2 suburban blocks before it became unreliable. This was not great, as using them in the hotel, you had to go though concrete walls, steel girders, and elevator shafts. This is why we eventually went to a CB frequency.

I think I was testing it out in my apartment some 2-3 years later, after I got married, where I picked up a baby monitor. I heard a baby fussing, and dishes being done, where the mother said, "I'll be with you in a minute, hon. Mommy is almost done!" In a low, deep demonic voice, I said, "FEED ME. NOW."

The second I took my finger off the "talk" button, I heard dishes shatter.

But irresponsible pranks on young mothers aside, to deal with "dead areas" of the hotel, the headsets were often supplemented with "relays" which were people who might be between an area where person A could not hear person B. So if Security Central wanted to speak to a roving team, they relayed through someone who stood next to the elevator shaft. This was not perfect, either.

The best example was when someone was trying to reach me to find out where wombat1138 was, specifically her dad, who was convinced she ran away and was hiding at Evecon 5. I was doing a 16 hour shift as a roving security person, and reported in about every 10-20 minutes via a relay by the shaft, who relayed to someone else, who relayed it to security. Everything I got back was routine:

Me: This is Unit 3. I am on the 5th floor. It's all clear.
Relay: Copy that, Unit 3. Central, this is Unit 9. Unit 3 reports all clear on the 5th floor.
Me: [never hears Central's response, starts sweep of floor 6]

Because Evecon 5 security was a terrible mess until the head of security was "forcibly retired" on Saturday, the message that wombat1138 was missing never got to me until Cheryl bumped into me in a hallway, frantic because wombat1138's dad was so angry and calling the convention about once an hour. They fact I had reported in every 10-20 minutes, and had done four 4 hour shifts in a row with no break (I kept getting told, "we're finding a replacement"), and no message had gotten back to me about my missing friend was one of the deciding factors if retiring the head of security.

In a final "Bwamp bwamp bwahhh" moment, it turns out wombat1138 had never left her house, and was in her bedroom the entire time. Her dad never checked, apparently. This angered Bruce to no end, who had already been yelled at by the hotel that the head of Security had mistakenly blocked off the only exit to the lobby, so people could leave the convention floor, but never get back, so the lobby quickly filled with angry fen.

I mentioned my headset got damaged. This same head of security "sequestered" by headset at one point, stating all broadcast devices owned by security volunteers were property of Central. Someone else got my headset, and broke it because he got the waggly antenna stuck in a door, pulling it from the circuit board. I was suitably pissed, but by the time I got it back, the head of Security was confined to his hotel room via his girlfriend by request of Bruce. It seems hiring someone who was a professional security detail for the Pentagon was a bad mistake, and for many years afterward, most of security didn't trust anyone who did it for a living outside the convention. Especially if he referred to people under him as "flunkies."

Other problems stemmed from the fact that the former head of security had given everyone "Unit" numbers and codes of locations and events, so instead of, "This is Fuzz in the lobby," or "There is an angry pre-teen in the consuite who hit Punkie," they were, "This is Unit 14 in 12," and "There is a 412 in 6 involving Unit 3." This may fly when you actually work in security in a secure location, but not for a cadre of convention volunteers. When webqatch and fuzzface00 took over, it took them hours to sort out the mess.

To this day, I have never seen the head of a convention security screw up that bad. I have seen some quit halfway through, but never fired and ejected.

My headset was repaired at the con by a friend who was studying engineering at the time. He actually had a soldiering set with him and repaired my circuit board and "tweaked" something to increase the range and clarity of my signal. So for the rest of Evecon 5, I had a "super headset" and could hear pretty much everybody at the Stouffer's Concourse Hotel. Later, IIRC, he did this for other FanTek headsets, so for many years, we had some headsets that were really good, and some that barely went between floors. That's why I kept mine, and I still have it, complete with various ribbons of security bondage.

One of the side effects of those headsets was that after a con, you still swore you could hear voices in the ear you had the headpiece to. I was told some security people even responded to these "voices" in their sleep up to a week afterwards.

webqatch: Zzzz...mmMmmum... this is Ralph... no, we're out of atomic tea... nargleMmmrr... Central goosh... ... zzzzz

The best one was Tynie, who apparently just said "Hot dog," because there was a "Marco/Polo" game being done with the words "Oscar Meyer/Hot dog."
Tags: cons, convention, evecon, fantek
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