Field Day 2020 – Pandemic Style

Erecting the 30 foot tower and beam antenna

It’s Field Day weekend – with a twist.  All spring, we have had to miss meetings, training, conventions and swap meets all due to COVID-19.  We weren’t able to do field day in our normal location at Fort Borst Park as all parks were closed so we made plans to do field day at the home of one of our team members, Don, KI7ZNG, in a beautiful pasture out in the country.

The weekend came to us with heavy clouds, strong winds and very cool temperatures but we weren’t about to be stopped.  We’ve done on air training, Zoom training and even email training.  We were determined to make field day happen so on Friday afternoon, we drove our two communication vans, Comm II and Comm III out to set up.  We erected a 30 foot tower for a beam and established three other long wire antennas as well.  By the end of Friday, we had 20 meters, 40 meters, 80 meters, 6 meters and a mobile digital station up and running.

Early Saturday morning, we began the day with a great breakfast which included the world’s best cinnamon rolls created by Evelyn, KE7ACI, then it was off to finish last minute preparations.  On the air at 11am, we found 20 meters and 40 meters to be the most open bands.  As with many teams, it is not the numbers we are after.  Using the event to train new hams and new ARES team members is more important.  Our communications vans are somewhat complicated with HF capabilities as well as Vhf, Uhf, Fire, Law, scanners and CB all running off three large batteries.  Saturday morning is often used to let those new to these vans get “hands on” time learning how to turn on lights and radios, run logging computers, and for many, trying out a contest for the very first time.  Even learning how to carefully adjust the tuning knob to be precisely on the other ham calling “CQ” takes some practice.  Taking the time to teach about the different antennas being used and how they are orientated is important.  By mid day, we had all of our newer people up to speed and had everything working.

Contacts throughout the day were steady but not spectacular by any means, but we enjoyed each other’s company and were just happy to be able to do some amateur radio work outside for a change having only been released to Phase III for about a week.  Saturday evening brought a wonderful meal and plenty of conversation and laughter.  By 8pm, most of the day crew were headed home and a few intrepid team members determined to stick it out through the night were just settling in.  By morning, the numbers from overnight had brought us up to a respectable total.  Sunday morning was slow and by the time the contest ended at 11am, we were ready to get the equipment down and head for home.  Even so, it was nearly 3pm before the comm vans were back at the fire station and everyone and everything was done.

This has been a very unusual field day for us.  Our very first Centralia ARES team member to join, Lyle Olmsted, KB7PI, passed away in December and this was our first field day without him.  His brother Merle, AA4QE, who lives in Kentucky traditionally came out to join us for field day every year and for the first time in a long time, he remained at home.  Merle was our CW guy and responsible for many years of high contest numbers and this year’s scores showed his absence.

Above and beyond all that is just the whole pandemic issue.  Can we be together or must we stay apart.  Does social distancing work?  We are mostly at the age where these decisions can be very important to our health.  Still, we will do what we can to stay together and safe.  It was a fun field day event.  Who knows, perhaps next year’s field day will be different.  Thanks to everyone who participated in field day.  What you do is important!

Training During COVID-19

Social Distancing In Our Vehicles

Covid-19 has certainly dictated changes in the way our Amateur Radio Emergency Service team trains.  On-air morning radio nets on Mondays and Thursday have replaced the regular meetings at our favorite local coffee shop.  Zoom meetings are now our social gatherings – at least for awhile.  Our normal twice monthly training sessions at the church have stopped as well.  We’re not complaining – too much – and we’ve had some interesting training sessions on Zoom that help us stay together but as wildfire season approaches the need for field training becomes ever more important.

Riverside Fire Authority (RFA) is one of our served agencies and as such, the ARES team trains to support them during wildfire season.  Our volunteers become a “force multiplier” as Fire Chief Mike Kytta calls it.  Wildfires are a major threat during the summer heat.  Any fire which begins amid summer heat and strong winds can quickly get out of hand. While RFA throws multiple resources at the fire, one issue that can change a controllable local fire into a conflagration is fire brands on the wind.  Moving beyond the fire line, into brush and yards, small fire brands can start multiple new fires ahead of the main fire sometimes high up in the trees.  If not dealt with quickly, fire personnel can have a major disaster on their hands.

Centralia ARES trains to support the fire teams in several different ways.  Using a quick alert system that tones our ARES staff as the same time the fire department receives the alert, we deploy a “rapid response team” who’s job it is to establish a net control, retrieve our two communications vans, and set up a liaison with the fire department’s on scene command.  If needed, the remainder of the ARES team receives an alert to respond.  After safety briefings and assignments, the ARES team conducts windshield surveys ahead and around the outside parameter of the five ranging along streets or country roads ahead of the fire looking for spot fires.  Part of the ARES team begin identifying the best evacuation routes should they be needed and provides that information back to the communications vans.  The real reason for the vans is to place an ARES communications hub as close to where we are conducting the windshield survey teams as safely possible.  The vans have a radio officer and scribe whose job is to keep in constant communication with the windshield survey teams.  A safety officer monitors a radio safety frequency and provides another set of eyes and ears for the team.  Finally a comm van leader oversees deployment of the windshield teams.  Prior to moving into the smoke filled area around the fire, the van leader confirms with each team where it needs to go on their maps, what radio frequency will be used and if they have their Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in their go-bags.  COVID-19 has definitely made training for this kind of event harder.

For the first time in months, we just completed some field training – with a few changes.  All team members responded to the initial training exercise briefing location but the briefing was give over a simplex channel while everyone remained in their own vehicles.  Instead of two comm vans, we used just one this time with the radio operator alone in the van and the team leader outside the van.  All communications were done over a simplex frequency.  All assignments were completed without physical contact.  The fun part for us was when Chief Kytta (also a ham radio operator) joined us from home.  He provided advice, information on how the fire department would deal with this pretend fire if it was real, and freely gave some needed real time support.

At the end of the exercise we gathered again, still in our own vehicles, back at the fire station for a debriefing session.  Chief Kytta gave his own debrief to the team before each team member was given the opportunity to discuss the exercise over the simplex channel prior to leaving for home.  We will be doing more of this kind of training as the summer progresses.  It is important to be trained and ready even during a pandemic.

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.