Changes During Unsettling Times

The arrival of the Coronavirus in the United States on January 21, 2020 brought about many changes in the way everyone does business.  With Washington State now the “hotbed” of activity, our ARES team has been busy just trying to keep up with daily mandates.

Initially, our team tried to maintain its rigorous training schedule but after speaking with our served agencies, Centralia Police Department and Riverside Fire Authority, it has become obvious we need to stop the most if not all social interaction.  For the last week, the team has been working towards a “no personal contact, in the field communications exercise” where each of us would use our personal vehicles with everything coordinated through our two communication vans.  Even this,  however, could put our people at risk and would require a complete sterilization wipe down of both communication vans before and after each use.  In addition, it brings our team out into an area full of unknown dangers as confirmed COVID-19 cases have now found our own community in the last few days.  Finally, most of our team members fall in the “advanced age” category where risk factors are much higher.

Our ARES team has now cancelled all outside training activities.  We have also stopped using our communication vans for our CW code classes.  Our scheduled coffee meetings have been halted and our monthly brunch session cancelled.  So where do we go from here?

Our team members have been asked to “shelter in place” – staying home when possible and reducing our interaction with the outside world as much as possible.  Amateur Radio operators, however, do have the unique capability of maintaining our communications system when almost everything around us begins to fail.  It is time to show the world what we can do from home!  Almost every ham can reach out and say hello on one or more amateur radio nets at least weekly if not daily.  We are blessed with a fantastic repeater in our county and two smaller repeaters in our own ARES response area.  There is simply no good reason why we cannot chat with each other whenever we like.  Since the internet is up and should continue, using Winlink as a training tool allows us to keep our skills sharp.  For those of us who have HF capability, there is something there every day and the weekends are full of activities.  In our own team, many have discovered the fun and excitement of DMR radios.  What a great time to learn all there is to know about that system.  While not everyone has HF capability on our CW team, we will figure out a way to keep going.  We won’t let those dits and dahs get away from us.  We have spent too much time learning the code!

We are going through a difficult time with many dangers.  Still, hams are luckier than most just because we train for emergencies and know how to use our communication skills to keep in touch.  Now is the time to try a new mode, or get on the air, or just chat with a friend on a local net.  We don’t yet know where the Coronavirus will take us but as we work through this situation, let’s all be “radio active”.

Stay well, stay safe and we will see you on the air.

A Discussion With Scott Dakers, W7SGD

Scott Dakers, W7SGD

February 3rd’s training night gave us a chance to sit down and chat with Scott Dakers, W7SGD.  Scott, a Centralia ARES team member, also serves as the Washington State EMD Logistics Communications Unit Lead at the Washington State EOC located at Camp Murray.  Many changes at the SEOC in the past six months have been directly related to Scott’s desire to improve the relationship between the SEOC and amateur radio emergency communications groups around the state.  We wanted to know how we should train to meet these goals.

So what are these “changes”?  Exercises, designed by Scott and the WEOC over the last months have pushed training on the ICS-213 Resource Request (RR) form.  This is the form that Emergency Managers and EOC’s around the state  use to request everything from beans to bulldozers if needed to deal with a disaster.  Once the Emergency Managers and EOC determine a specific resource not currently available to them, the request process begins with county assets and if necessary, to the Washington State EOC.    While not overly complicated, the ICS-213RR form does require quite a bit of information.  In smaller EOC’s like Centralia’s, the Logistics Chief may be the Streets Department Lead on normal days.  You can bet he is not as familiar with the ICS-213RR as will be required in a disaster.  This is where amateur radio operators in the EOC will help create the resource request and send it along.  Once signed off, how is this ICS-213RR form sent if all normal communications have failed?  In most cases this will be either voice or Winlink.

Scott has encouraged amateur radio groups to become comfortable with Winlink primarily because in a disaster, most amateur radio voice frequencies will probably be overloaded with hams requesting situational information.  Winlink allows the information to be forwarded and stored at the SEOC until someone there can deal with the request, but voice communications is still vitally important.  To that end, Centralia ARES has been practicing several times each month with 60 meters net operations, among others, that connect us with SEOC.  60 meters is a shared frequency where amateur radio operators are secondary users but it brings military, FEMA and amateur radio together on one frequency.  Centralia has also applied and been approved as part of the SHARES Homeland Security communications system – yet another available frequency that would most likely be much less overwhelmed during a local disaster.

Future exercises have our ARES team practicing with the ICS-213 general message forms and the ISNAP situation reports reporting with both voice frequencies and Winlink.  For us, these exercises are even more important due to our choice to use our two amateur radio mobile communication vans.  While our EOC is in a fixed location at Centralia City Hall, it is susceptible to a larger earthquake and it currently has no HF capabilities but both our vans have it all from CB up through police/fire and amateur radio HF including Winlink and even CW.  Communications exercises with these vans happen continually and we really appreciate their capabilities.

Scott will be a presenter at this year’s Communications Academy at South Seattle College.  We certainly look forward to listening to his presentation there but we thoroughly enjoyed sharing a relaxed but informative conversation at last evening’s training.  Thanks Scott!

Monthly Field Communications Test Exercises

Ken AD6KT testing his HT in the rain

It was a typical Northwest day with 100% chance of rain all day accompanied by 12 mph winds.  But we don’t care!  We are Professional Amateur Radio Emergency Service Volunteers!  We laugh at bad weather, especially when we can use our two communications vans equipped with superb heaters.  These regular 3 hour monthly field communications test exercises are fun and each one is a learning experience.  We have three objectives: provide orientation on the vans and communications equipment to any of our team that wish to learn; test communications capabilities throughout our response area HT up to HF; and check into the monthly FEMA and Homeland Security nets in support of our State EOC tests.

We began this exercise with another van deployment orientation – basically making sure everyone knew how to take the comm vans out of the fire station where they are housed.  This involves unplugging the external power systems, unplugging the battery tender, raising the fire station doors and start up procedures for the vans.  We also spent some time showing everyone how to set up the Icom IC-7300 radios for CW operations as that would be part of the exercise parameters for the day.  Once out of the station, one van was deployed to Riverside Fire Station number three and the other would go to RFA station number 4 – both on the outskirts of our response areas.  When the vans were in place and the HF antennas up, we were ready to conduct some communications tests.

This exercise began testing our CW capability on the 6 meter simplex frequency.  We successfully passed CW traffic back and forth between locations using short messages at different speeds.  From there we moved on to testing voice comms over the same 6 meter frequency.  On testing days, we always have a couple of team members monitoring from home just to give us a little more information about how well things are working.  While we regularly use our two local repeaters for these tests, we have learned that 6 meters (simplex and repeater) works well enhancing our capabilities.

Next were the VHF/UHF tests over three area wide repeaters as well as our two local repeaters.  All worked well.  We have found through testing that one repeater north of our response area does a really good job covering a couple of areas our local repeaters have trouble with.  Thanks to the Capitol Peak Repeater folks for letting use their repeater.

One area we continually want to test is our ability to use 5 watt HTs within our response area.  Should the worst happen, these radios may be our last line of defense but we need to have a through understanding of their limitations and where they will and will not work. Should we be tasked with house to house evacuations in outlying areas, we will need to rely on volunteers using HTs to pass information.  If necessary, we can and will use relays to make the communications happen.  While this worked well from one fire station, the other had difficulties as we were working under a power line and up against a metal building but choices were limited.  Our goal is to create a response area wide map that shows where HTs will function reliably.  While we have options, it is important to know what communications systems work and where they don’t.  Unfortunately, our response area is not flat where line of site comms work well.  We are surrounded by hills, mountains and plenty of dirt.

Each Field Communications Test Exercise provides a little more data and plenty of opportunity to use all the radio systems in the comm vans.  What will we be testing next month?  We will have to wait to decide but we have an extensive list of ideas to try.  Maybe next month will be warmer and dryer, but we don’t mind a little bad weather.  Did I mention how well those heaters work in the vans?