Flood Windshield Survey Field Exercise

Lyle, KB7PI and John, AD6KT handle windshield survey radio traffic during a deployment exercise.

Fall is certainly in the air in beautiful, historic Centralia,  The rains have started and the leaves are turning or have already fallen from some of the trees.  For Centralia Amateur Radio Emergency Service volunteers, this means we are also nearing flood season.  While we don’t get many blizzards or hurricanes, we are regularly visited by localized flooding – often massive flooding.

In September, the team trained on EOC operations.  The Emergency Operations Center, located on the 2nd floor of Centralia City Hall, also contains an amateur radio station.  During this training, we talked about the role of ARES during a flood event.  Usually this involves working as the eyes and ears for the Incident Commander conducting street by street community evaluations before and during the flood event.  We also perform real time stream and river monitoring, and photograph what we see for disaster records.  The team has been tasked in the past with monitoring local sandbag stations and we have trained to set up emergency sheltering with communications directly to the EOC.  Time was dedicated to discussing how the team would be contacted and  deployed and what their assignments might be and as usual in the EOC, we tested all amateur radio communication systems.

At our first October training exercise, it was time to show our team members, new and old, how to successfully conduct a windshield survey.  In the rain and in the dark, seven windshield survey teams were deployed into the community.  Two team members deployed and set up Comm II, one of our all purpose communications vehicles.  Comm II becomes a centralized communications hub that takes radio traffic from the windshield survey teams and then filters and directs that information to the EOC or wherever it needs to go.  This was our first time using Comm II in this role but it showed just how capable this vehicle can be with good operators.

In the past few weeks, the ARES team has been testing the APRSdroid tracking system.  With this App, each team member can

Tracking data from APRSdroid

utilize their cell phone to create a moment by moment track of their movements throughout the community as they are doing their windshield surveys.  This track, including their current position, can be monitored with the computer onboard Comm II or even in the Emergency Operations Center.  Not only does this system keep track of each team member for safety purposes, but it is also a great tool for the Incident Commander to see the overall deployment picture of his volunteers.

Yet another piece of this training exercise is our ongoing attempt to trim down and professionalize our amateur radio communications during a deployment.  This is often harder than it looks.  Each team member is encouraged to think carefully about what they need to say before keying up the radio.  They need to understand what information is helpful and what is not needed.  Finally, they must know how to prioritize those messages.

Our volunteers continue to do a great job with a difficult task.  We learn with each exercise just what is required to be a more professional partner to our served agencies.  October will continue to be a busy month with our annual Simulated Emergency Test exercise and some expanded communications practice.  While this month will be hectic, there is no time to waste.  We know the rains will arrive soon enough.  We want to be prepared.

Windshield Surveys – From Wildfire to Floods

Just a few weeks ago, we were training hard to conduct wildfire windshield surveys.  Now with much cooler temperatures and a few days of rain, the fire threat, while still there, is diminishing.  Time to switch gears as we move into October and the rains begin their regular pattern.  The flood season here in beautiful, historic Centralia runs from October through February.  With four “100 year flood events” in the past thirty years, we’ve learned to treat the storms that sweep in from the Pacific Ocean with care.  Each year, Centralia and Lewis County experience localized flooding without exception, but the bigger flooding events that can cause real damage can also visit regularly.

Windshield surveys for wildfires and floods have their similarities but they definitely have their differences as well.  The biggest difference is deployment warnings.  Wildfires occur without warning and need immediate attention while we generally know a flood event is coming our way a week or two in advance.  Centralia has four independent waterways that create localized flooding depending on where and how the water arrives.  At its worst, flooding can and sometimes does divide our city into four separate areas where it can be difficult or even impossible to travel from one area to another.  With that possibility in mind, Centralia ARES has created mobile communication vans which allow us to establish a command post wherever the need arises.  We can, for example, set up a mobile communications command post in all four separate divisions of the community if necessary.

This changes the way we conduct windshield surveys as well.  While the Emergency Operations Center ramps up for a community wide flood situation, ARES personnel can set up independent, local neighborhood command posts nearer to the flood problem.  These communication vans can use their own ARES simplex frequency to communicate with their flood survey people or everyone can use the K7CEM repeater to keep in touch within the area.

When it comes to flood windshield survey work, it is all about creating a “picture” of the community for those in charge of the Emergency Operations Center.  The Incident Commander, usually a police or fire staff member, knows his community well yet, confined to the EOC, needs ARES volunteers to “paint him a picture” of what each neighborhood looks like now – or two hours from now so he can effectively deal with issues.  For ARES team members this means monitoring water flow to determine if it is changing for the better or for worse.  It also means conducting a street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood evaluation to determine which streets are under water, which ones must be closed and always looking for local issues such as a sink hole or vehicle driven into deep water now needing rescue.

Generally while the survey teams are working in 2-3 hour shifts, the ARES staff in the EOC begin the deployment process and area assignments.  After a situation briefing, safety briefing and area/frequency assignments, survey teams are sent to their survey areas where they check in with the nearest communications van who then is responsible for the survey deployment.  For the most part, it is not dangerous work but often boring work.  Nevertheless, the information provided is important to the command structure in the Emergency Operations Center.  There are times when the EOC remains closed if the event is predicted to be small and of short duration.  In these cases ARES teams will often conduct windshield surveys just to stay ahead of the issue.  Sometimes an hour or two’s warning can make the difference.

The 1986 “100 year flood” event was somewhat of a surprise mostly because none of the police and fire personnel had experienced such an event.  Still, it was a madhouse scramble, often in the dark, as first responders evacuated nursing homes and families.  The 1996 “100 year flood” closed Interstate 5 for four days and flooded local businesses with up to 14 feet of water.  By far, the 2007 flood was the worst in recent memory.  Not because it was huge or even because it closed the freeway for four days once again.  This flood was an out and out surprise.  Weather forecasts predicted a heavy local rain that would pass to the east.  Instead the huge rain cell stalled over the local Willapa Hills (unknown to the weather service) and dumped nearly 20 inches of rain into the local Chehalis River system.  By the time the wall of water, which destroyed bridges, railroads and homes in its path, became known, it was to late to do anything but react, and we were slow to do that as well.

Flooding will always be a part of our area and I’m sure we will have yet more “100 year flood” events but we may have learned some lessons over the years.  Now, we watch and monitor large rain events carefully.  We have learned to ramp up the Emergency Operations Center sooner and prepare better.  Amateur Radio Emergency Service teams are and will be a part of that preparation into the future.  Yes, October means a change in the way we train for our ARES team of volunteers but that is just fine with us.

Willapa Hills Trail Ride Special Event

Amateur Radio Emergency Service teams from Thurston County and Centralia came together last evening deep in the rural farmlands of west Lewis County to help with the 2018 Willapa Hills Midnight Trail Ride, an event, as the name implies, to support two different horse rides along the Willapa Hills trail system.  The Willapa Hills Cheese Farm was the central start point for two different rides and held the net control station for the ARES teams.  The Endurance Ride, nearly 30 miles in length, ran from the Willapa Hills farm to the Adna trail head and back while the Trail Ride travelled west from the farm to the town of PeEll and back.  While both rides began in late evening,  darkness came before most riders were on the trails.

For the nearly sixty riders, this event tested horsemanship in many areas.  Horses prefer the light of day and being a single horse and rider working their way, alone, along miles of trail only four feet wide in total darkness with trees and bushes on either side using only a headlamp can be lonely and unnerving.  For example, horses that had walked miles in total darkness suddenly entered the small town of PeEll as they neared their turn around spot.  Faced with a normal sidewalk, which wouldn’t have been a problem in the daylight but which glowed an eerie white under the streetlights, many horses were frightened and simply refused to cross the barrier.

For hams, there were different challenges. Working the 30 mile course using a variety of mobile radios and HT’s was interesting.  Most of us worked locations where the trail crossed a road and our job was to be sure it was safe for the riders to cross the road.  We gathered their rider numbers and reported the information back to net control so no horse and rider team would be left stranded and alone on the trail.  For most of the ARES people, this meant sitting outside of our vehicles at a wide spot on a narrow country road in order to see the riders as they approached often lit only with a glow stick.  To protect the rider’s night vision, each ride monitor used only red headlamps for illumination.  Wind and a constant drizzle made it more difficult for everyone.  It was also interesting to note that “bear spray” was a suggested but optional carry along for our go-bags.

Without enough hams to cover every road crossing, several had to reposition to alternate locations and back during the night but the event was planned well and there were no real issues.  By 1 am in the morning, all riders were back at Willapa Hills Farm and the ARES teams were released to head home.

None of the Centralia ARES team had ever worked an event like this and it was interesting to work in total darkness in an area we were unfamiliar with under less than perfect conditions.  Most of us used our mobile radios plus one or two HT’s to keep in contact with each other and net control.  Preparations included food and snacks, a wide array of clothing for all conditions, a complete go-bag, red light headlamps and traffic wand as well as nearly 30 pages of instructions, frequency lists and maps.  The event went off without any problems, as well planned events tend to do.  The Thurston County ARES team did a great job coordinating all the hams and it was nice that just about every horse rider thanked us as they passed.  One rider mentioned that after riding alone in the dark for miles, just seeing that little read headlamp in the distance and knowing the hams were there made her feel safe.  Congratulations to everyone involved for a job well done.  Hams do good work!