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.

Flood Windshield Survey Site Tour

Chehalis River Bridge

As flood season approaches in the Chehalis River valley, Centralia ARES has been busy ramping up for another year of unknowns.  Will it be a year of minor flooding or is it time for another 100 year event?  Only time will tell.  During flood events, ARES volunteers guard sandbag locations, man the Emergency Operations Center amateur radios, and conduct street by street windshield surveys among other assignments.  Knowing the locations where we can assess flooding on area rivers and creeks is important but many of these places are hard to find, especially for new team members.

Saturday, October 13th, the team took a tour visiting 18 sites on all four of the important waterways in our community.  These consisted of two locations on the Chehalis River, four on the Skookumchuck River, six on China Creek and three on Salzer Creek.  Additionally, we visited several dike locations and the China Creek Flood Mitigation Project site.

Stopping at each location, team members were able to see, first hand, the exact same locations they will be visiting during their flood surveys.  We discussed how and why these rivers and creeks flooded and were able to describe how flood waters affect the streets and neighborhoods in each area.  Finally we discussed the dike system that surrounds Centralia and how that functions to protect the community.

The team has been working on information sheets that will ultimately go into their field resource manuals that provide information on each of these sites as well.  Information will include a street addresses, GPS coordinates, safety concerns, general information about each site and photos.

China Creek in Downtown Centralia

For Centralia ARES, a flood event windshield survey means combining two pieces of information into one reporting system.  Over a two or three hour survey period, team members are asked to stop at the places in their respective emergency response divisions where they can view the river or creek flows.  They provide a radio report back to the EOC on what they see and report changes they have noticed hour by hour.  When away from the river locations, the team conducts a street by street community assessment reporting power outages, water over various roads or dangerous situations, then it’s back to the rivers and creeks to see if there are changes in the flood.  A complete report from each team not only gives the EOC photos or descriptions of the flooding situation but also provides a complete community picture for the Incident Commander who cannot leave the EOC to see conditions for himself.

The APRSdroid tracking system we have been experimenting with this fall does a wonderful job of tracking each windshield survey team and allows the volunteers in the EOC to show their progress to the entire incident command team on the computers and TVs in the EOC.

Floods generally don’t come as a surprise to our community.  The National Weather Service does a great job providing days of warning.  Still, a flood is an unsettling event and the large floods can be devastating.  Being prepared to assist our served agencies to the best of our abilities is important to our team.  Every hour spent in preparation makes us better at what we do and we plan to do our best.

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.