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.

Flood Response Training At November 5th Meeting

Chief Mike Kytta of the Riverside Fire Authority speaking to the team at last evening’s training

Our November 5th training was a busy one with some wonderful visitors like Scott, W7SGD from the Washington State Emergency Operations Center and his wife, Anita.  Former team members, Linc and Teresa Haymaker, now living in Colorado, visiting relatives in the area came to spend the evening with us and Riverside Fire Authority Chief Mike Kytta, who stopped by just to thank the team members for their ongoing work to be prepared to support the community, especially as we move into the 2018 flood season.

In the last month or so, the team has been working hard to prepare for whatever role they are assigned during the unpredictable fall and winter months.  Our usual response request is to support the EOC, first responders and the community performing what we call Windshield Surveys.  Our EOC Incident Commanders are always police or fire supervisors who know their community well.  Once stuck in the EOC, without current information about what floodwaters are doing, it is difficult to get that “overall picture” of what needs to be done and to determine priorities.  Our first responders, police and fire, are always busy with calls for service and that is where our volunteers come in.  We have the manpower and time to drive through the community, street by street, and give flood related information to the Incident Commander via the amateur radios in the EOC.  Our Windshield Surveys require that team members assigned observe up to 16 different locations on four waterways that can flood the community.  We can take a close look at these waterways, take photos to send back to the EOC and tell the IC exactly what changes are happening to the river or stream.  Once that is done,  team members turn their attention to the streets, patrolling neighborhood by neighborhood, to determine if flood waters are creating a danger to homeowners, animals or anything else.  Hour by hour, we do it all over again for as long as we are needed.

Comm Three setting up at a flood deployment exercise

Each flood season, the ARES team tries to improve its response system.  This year, we have added a tracking system called APRSdroid to our repertoire.  This allows us to track our Windshield Survey teams moment by moment, using their cell phones, and put their current track up on the computers in the EOC or in our communications vans.  As they check each river and stream and as they move through the community street by street, the entire EOC can observe their progress.

To help new team members become accustomed to the many river observation sites they need to learn, we’ve added support pages to their field resource manuals.  These pages describe each location with its name, what emergency response area it is in, its GPS coordinates, general information about the site, cautions if necessary such as “heavy traffic in area” and finally, photographs of the survey site.  The GPS coordinates are important so they can use Google Maps on their cell phones if they wish to obtain driving directions that will take them directly to each site.  We have also added a site to the EOC and communications van’s computer that allows photos to be sent in real time showing anything the teams feel might be important to the Incident Commander (IC).

One of the new changes this year is using our communications van(s) in a support role to our Windshield

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

Survey teams.  In the past, the road teams have produced a lot of information that went directly to the radio operators in the EOC but much of that radio traffic was not vital to the EOC.  For example, if a team was advising they were going to take a break to grab lunch, the EOC, as a whole, did not need to hear that information.  This year, one or more communications vans will be placed in a safe location in whichever Emergency Response Division that is experiencing flooding.  The vans, with a team leader and radio operator, will take all the radio traffic from the Windshield Survey teams, filter it, prioritize it and send it on to the EOC on a separate command frequency.  The van is also directly responsible to monitor the Windshield Survey team’s safety and location. Finally, during the first part of October, we took everyone on a guided tour to each river and stream’s monitoring location.  There, we explained how the flood waters work their way through our community, what kinds of damage may be expected and how to approach each site safely.  Placing the team members at the exact spot where they will be safe observing the rivers and streams during a flood should be helpful.

Chief Kytta reminded us that while some ARES teams train for a specific mission, we train to be an “all hazards” team, capable of responding to any threat to the community and available to support our first responders in whatever role we are asked to do.  Be it wildfire support training in July or flood training in November, each are designed to support Police, Fire and the community.  When the floods come, it is too late to conduct training.  Being prepared to respond is vital for our volunteers.