Windshield surveys are nothing new to Amateur Radio Emergency Service teams. Most teams train to conduct windshield surveys in support of their Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) after a disaster such as an earthquake. During these surveys, the amateur radio operator’s main function is to survey the entire community, street by street, looking for important city infrastructure that may have been damaged and then report it so the Incident Commander has a clear picture of what damage needs to be fixed. It’s a pretty simple ARES model – find it & report it by radio. There can, however, be different kinds of windshield surveys.
Our community, Centralia, is hit much more frequently by localized flooding than it is by earthquakes. Nearly every year, we experience several small or large flood events. At times, we are on the receiving end of very large floods having seen four “One Hundred Year” flood events in the past twenty years. Those are dangerous, costly and frightening. During flood events, windshield survey duties change slightly. ARES team members still canvas the entire community, street by street, to report damage assessment information back to the EOC. This time, however, we are also looking for people or animals needing rescue, power outages, sinkholes and other situations related specifically to the flood.
Windshield survey’s don’t just happen and ARES team members do not self deploy for windshield surveys. When the need arises for survey work, a general callout to all team members goes out over the Alertsense system asking everyone to check into and monitor a specific coordinating frequency. Once checked in, team members are given a short situation report by net control and we find out who is available and who might be later on. Assignments are made and a schedule is created covering anywhere from four to 12 hours. Floods don’t come as a surprise. Centralia doesn’t generally flood in the dry season and when it has rained for several days in a row, plenty of warning is available as flood conditions approach. The key is to be ready to move once called. Usually two or three flood survey teams are assigned and given a three to four hour survey window. Prior to assignment start time, teams are asked to report to the EOC or other staging area where they are given a situation and safety briefing and frequency assignments. They are shown their assigned area on the map and we have time to answer questions. With ARES magnetic signs on their vehicles, and a complete go-bag which include their ARES reflective vest, they are ready to go.
Recently, Centralia ARES has begun training on yet another kind of windshield survey – wildfires. As with all other windshield survey duty assignments, this one happens because there simply aren’t enough people to do the job required. Fire fighters are busy fighting the wildfire, which often requires an immense amount of manpower. There are few people available to search outside the fire perimeter for hotspots or new fires caused by wind blown debris. Many wildfires have quickly increased in size as new fires suddenly start up outside the partially contained fire areas when winds shift or debris is blown across a road finding new fuel for a fire.
With wildfire windshield surveys, our priorities shift once more. Now we are looking specifically for smoke where it should not be indicating a possible new fire. New situations, such as homes, families or animals in danger due to the fire must be monitored, checked and reported to fire command. In some cases, evacuation notifications must be issued house by house. Who does all that? Often it is an already stretched thin group of law enforcement officers. In many cases, two or three officers may be all that is available to do this assignment. If you have fifty homes or more in the path of a wildfire, these officers have more than they can handle. A trained volunteer group, especially with a good communications system in touch with fire command, can literally be a life saver. Wildfire surveys, however, come with a level of danger. Often the teams are working in heavy smoke. They must always know where they are and how to escape should the fire suddenly breach its containment area. Eyes are often off the road making it difficult to watch everything and drive safely all at the same time. Here, a properly prepared go-bag which contains particulate masks, extra water and even eye drops or goggles can make all the difference. Unlike floods, a wildfire windshield survey request will come quickly from fire command as they develop a need for volunteers and the response as well will require a short notice call up.
So why are ARES volunteers needed at all? As mentioned above, it comes down to manpower. All police and fire departments staff their facilities with the bare number of responders they might need for an “average” call for service. If the situation calls for additional manpower, they can increase their staff by using a call back system, calling up those personnel who are off duty. They can increase the odds even further with a request for mutual aid – calling other fire departments to lend a hand. Remember, however, these professionals have a job to do. They must put out the fire or take care of the situation as quickly as possible with the least amount of loss or injury. What they never have is enough “eyes on the scene” to look outside their immediate response areas. Also as mentioned earlier, it is unlikely there would be enough law enforcement personnel on hand to conduct even a medium sized evacuation notification. This is where trained ARES volunteers can be of help. Those volunteers, however, are only useful if they know what to do and are not a safety liability for the personnel fighting the fires. No one should be deployed to wildfire windshield survey duties without proper training. If you think it might be fun just to self deploy to a wildfire because you’ve got a radio and a vest, you are wrong – perhaps dead wrong – to do so. In this case, you become part of the problem and not part of the solution.
How should you prepare for windshield survey duties? This requires work and thought on your part. You will not be asked to prepare for a wildfire during flood season or prepare for a flood response in the middle of summer. You already know what you need to operate during these events: a vehicle with a full tank of fuel, a good mobile radio & HT, a properly prepared go-bag and common sense. When it is flood season and you receive notification of possible flooding, prepare. Prepare before the event. During the heat of summer, be prepared to be called out at a moment’s notice. You should not need to run around looking for equipment that should have been in your go-bag already. Only YOU can prepare correctly for a call up.
Incidentally, as with any real call up, prepare for training exercises in the same way you would for the real event. Don’t come to a wildfire training exercise in the heat without extra water. Be prepared with pencil and paper for taking notes during a briefing. Make sure your HT is charged and you have an extra battery and dress for the weather. Make sure you go-bag is ready and bring it with you.
ARES volunteers won’t get paid as well as professional firefighters or police officers but those served agencies have a right to believe you are prepared to do the job correctly and safely when called.