Christmas Lighted Tractor Parade

ARES Comm II On Station

Who wants to come out on a cold, dark December evening and stand around for two hours or more watching some vehicles – of which only a few are actually tractors – covered in Christmas lights drive down the street?  Well, apparently everyone in and around beautiful, historic downtown Centralia does!  The Centralia Christmas Lighted Tractor Parade has been around for a few years now and it just gets bigger and bigger every year.  The number of parade entries last year was around 56 but this year it topped 90.

And this isn’t one of those quiet parade.  Oh, no, its a Christmas party on wheels with singing, bands playing, Christmas music on every float and dancing in the streets.  Yup, when it comes to a lighted tractor parade, we know how to party!  This year Centralia ARES had 10 volunteers and two communications vans working the parade.  CPD had 9 officers,sergeants, and two command staff doing walking patrols, on bicycles or in patrol cars.  Riverside Fire Chief Mike Kytta redirected a couple of his aid crews around the parade route and had his small, quick response vehicle in the downtown area as well.

With 10 volunteers, the ARES team was spread out to cover about every other intersection.  The first intersection required two volunteers and two police officers working crowd control to keep the kids back and out from under the floats but even that wasn’t enough.  One ARES communications van held the net control and the other van, set up on the

One of 90+ parade entries

far side of the parade monitored a safety channel just in case one of the volunteers needed help.  We were also responsible for delivering and setting up the police department’s communication and command van.  This year, however, it was never used as the Sergeant Patty Finch, the officer in charge of the parade, spent much of her time monitoring the event from inside our ARES van as we had a nice heater going.  Unfortunately for her, when things started to get hectic, out she went into the cold.

Thankfully, just as planned, the parade ended without any major problems or incidents.  It was evident that everyone had a good time.  By 9pm, Centralia ARES had all the vans back in their facilities and all team members accounted for and

Pollice Chief Carl Nielsen

heading home.  Centralia holds two major parades each year, the other being the July 4th Summerfest parade but for us, the Christmas Lighted Tractor Parade is the most fun.  From the looks of it, all those folks standing out in the cold appreciated it as well.  Must be the Christmas season.

Response Flexibility

Today we spent some time at the Cooks Hill Fire Station conducting team orientation on our Amateur Radio Emergency Service communications vans.  These are complicated vehicles and we just want to be sure everyone is familiar with them – inside and out.  It starts with knowing where the vehicles are stored and how to get into the fire station.  Everyone must know how to open the garage bay doors, unplug from shore power and operate the vehicle.

Once inside the communications van, it becomes much more complicated as the vehicle is filled with multiple VHF, UHF, and HF radios.  If its not the same radio you have in your personal vehicle, there is always going to be a learning curve when it comes to operating different radios.  Add the high frequency radios and it gets much more complicated.  But that’s not all that is in the vans.  There is a CB radio, scanner, police and fire radios (mobile and HTs) and computers.  There are backup antenna systems, lighting for a rural helicopter landing zone, maps, tools and even survival equipment.

So why do we have all this stuff?  If our team members have a mobile radio in their vehicles and perhaps an HT as a

Skip, K1HEK, explaining the HF Icom 7300 radio to James, AE7TF

backup, isn’t that enough?  The answer is “I don’t know”, and that’s the problem.  An Amateur Radio Emergency Response is a funny thing.  Months or even years may go by without anyone needing our special talents.  Unfortunately, “our special talents” are most helpful after catastrophic events such as a devastating earthquake.  Can we be of use if we only have an HT or a mobile radio?  Can we be more helpful with a complete communications van?  Only if you know how to use all the equipment in the van.  It would be silly for a fire truck to leave the station without the fire hoses.  It would be even worse if the fireman had the truck, the hoses and water but didn’t know how to use them to put out the fire.

When thinking about flexibility within our own community, these vans with all their equipment become even more important.  Our city’s Emergency Operations Center is located on the second floor of a brick building built in the early 20th century.  While it has been structurally improved, no one knows if it will remain standing after a large earthquake.  Our area has experienced several 100 year flood events.  These floods can and do cut our community into sections when the rivers and creeks swell and overflow their banks.  The city has designated four “Emergency Response Divisions” – basically areas that become islands when large floods occur.  The plan is to place emergency response equipment, including mobile communication vans, in these areas before a flood occurs.  With the equipment in place, first responders can respond to help neighborhoods even if cut off from the rest of the community.  Who operates these communication vans?  Yup, amateur radio operators.

Lyle, KB7PI, Testing the HF radio on the Communications trailer

Our Amateur Radio Emergency Service team has spent years creating a small fleet of communications vehicles.  We’re proud of them and they certainly look professional but the real test comes when they are needed after an disaster or during a flood.  Can we use all that equipment to do the job we are asked to do?  That takes training and commitment and that’s the reason for today’s orientation.  You know what they say…. “Amateur Radio is a hobby… Amateur Radio Emergency Service is a commitment”.

Redundancy Can Be The Key

AEC Lyle Olmsted, KB7PI, showing off the new Bridgecom Repeater at the last training session.

Redundancy.  According to the dictionary, redundancy is the “inclusion of extra components that are not strictly necessary to functioning, in case of failure in other components”.  You carry a spare tire in your car for redundancy, in case you have an unexpected flat.  The airplane that flies you to Hawaii for your vacation depends on multiple computers to get you there, in addition to the pilots.  Redundancy.

We preach redundancy within our team as well, although perhaps on a smaller scale.  If you carry a flashlight in your go-bag, it is recommended that you carry at least one set of replacement batteries.  Two sets are better yet.  You’ve heard me preach “three levels of redundancy” more times than you would like.  If you carry an HT, you should be carrying an extra battery pack AND either a spare battery pack that will use AA batteries or one that will allow you to plug into your car’s power system to recharge… or both.  Redundancy.  Each of our emergency communication vans have three levels of power redundancy – a battery system dedicated to the radios, a generator and shore power.  Even the radio system uses multiple radios just to make sure communicaitons can happen if a failure occurs.

This week, we are almost ready to put our brand new Bridgecom repeater system into operation.  This, too, is

The duplexer portion of the new repeater system ready to mount

a redundant system.  Our current repeater is fully operational, and is located at a local fire station up on a hilltop.  The station is basically bullet proof and should survive even a large earthquake but the antenn is 70′ up on a 120′ tower.  While a large generator would keep the repeater in operation, there is a slight chance the tower might not survive a large earthquake.  Our new backup repeater is to be located in a team member’s home at about the same height as our main repeater.  Should an earthquake occur, we have a great power back up system available and the antenna, should it fall, could be replaced easily.  Our third level of redundancy is even simpler.  Our entire response area can be reached using a simplex frequency and an HT.

Every one of us hopes the predicted 9.0 earthquake off the Washington/Oregon coast doens’t happen any time soon, but it is part of our job as an emergency communications team to be ready for whatever may come along.  We’ve lost telephone communications here during much smaller earthquakes and there is no reason to believe it won’t happen again, so best to be prepared.

What’s your redundancy level at your home or business?  Are you depending on a simple HT and no back up power systems?  You just might want to think about some additional power systems.  Redundancy.  It just might save your life.