Training In The Emergency Response Divisions

It is November.  Along with days and days of heavy rain, comes our first flood warning.  While this didn’t turn out to be much, it is certainly a reminder of what is to come over the next few months.  For some of the new team members, it is their first opportunity to locate and understand Centralia’s Emergency Response Divisions.  After one of our past “100 year” floods, emergency managers realized parts of Centralia could be cut off from each other if the Skookumchuck river, the Chehalis River and China Creek all rose at the same time, resulting in five separate “divisions”, possibly inaccessible for up to 48 hours.

While this might be an inconvenience, the real danger would be if emergency teams were unable to respond to a fire, power outage or a life threatening incident.  To overcome these issues, city officials decided to place a small cadre of response workers and vehicles in one or more of the divisions susceptible to being cut off by rising waters.  These might include a street department dump truck with sand, a deep water vehicle, a fire engine, a police car or even an Amateur Radio Emergency Service communications van with capability of setting out a medical helicopter landing zone for day or night operations.  Time to make sure everyone on the ARES team knows where these collection points are located in each Emergency Response Division.  To make it a little more interesting, we conducted the situation briefing on simplex while all team members remained in their vehicles.  At least everyone remained dry.

At the same time, it was a great opportunity to put eyes on each of our eleven designated helicopter landing zones.  Finally, we threw a couple of “issues” into the mix by pretending two of the primary roads leading into the north end and the hospital area were closed due to flooding requiring team members find another way around to their destinations.  Rain made the exercise even more realistic.

Within 90 minutes, all team members had located their assignments and checked on all helicopter landing zone locations.  We debriefed and everyone was headed home.  Another catastrophe averted – at least until the next flood incident.

Great American Shakeout Exercise

Annually thousands of Washington residents take part in the Great American Shakeout, a well rehearsed training scenario dedicated to teaching everyone how to safely respond to earthquakes.  With training dates flexible for this event, Centralia Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) team members selected Monday, October 18th – their normal training day – for this year’s earthquake exercise.  The scenario, based around the 6.8 magnitude 2001 Nisqually quake, brought the team together to practice working with our relatively new Community Situation Status Tracking forms.

We began with a call up requesting ARES members, once their home situations had been deemed safe, to respond to an unknown staging area.  In this exercise, both Centralia repeaters were offline due to the quake.  Team members were advised to respond to the core areas of Centralia and, using only simplex frequencies, contact one of our mobile communication vans where they would be directed to a staging area near Centralia College for assignment.  At the staging area, each team member was to show they had their vest, ARES ID, map books, radios, go-bags and mobile door shields.  Next they were given a multi-block location within the city limits to find using map page and grid square in their map books.  Once we were sure everyone knew where to go, each team member deployed.  Some areas were business districts while others were residential streets.  The Community Situation Status Tracking forms are designed to give the Incident Commander in our EOC a quick “snapshot” of the condition of his/her community after the earthquake.  The form documents injuries, both minor and major, light and major structural damage, fires as well as gas leaks, broken water mains, power outages, bridge / road damage and visible damage to homes and businesses.  Each survey takes only a couple of minutes once the team member arrives at their assigned location.  That information is relayed back to the net control in the communications van where it would checked for accuracy and then sent to the amateur radio operator assigned to the Centralia EOC.

After any large disaster such as an earthquake, communities ramp up their emergency operations response but with power often out and many possible catastrophes present, the EOC must begin to prioritize its response.  In order to prioritize that response, the Incident Commander must have some idea just how bad the situation is.  Situation tracking forms completed by trained mobile volunteers such as an ARES team can  produce this “community snapshot” in a relatively short time.  There is no easier way to collect this information than using trained, trusted volunteers with a plan and direct communications to the Incident Commander in the EOC.

Monday turned out to be a dark, cold and rainy training night.  The forms, new to us, will need to be changed and expanded somewhat but these kinds of changes are what we want from our field training process.  For now, everyone worked through the training exercise safely and our communications systems operated exactly as planed.  Thanks to our great volunteers who always work hard to keep our community safe.


It Is Fall – Time To Train For Bad Weather

Fall has arrived and that isn’t a bad thing, especially when we remember the 110 degree temperatures this year during Field Day.  The 70 degree fall days are a welcome relief.  A person I know says “I can smell cool temperature and rain… and I love it!”.  With the arrival of September and now October, we also know we must switch gears from Red Flag training to weather related (especially flood related) training.

So our first training session in October, will put us back in the Centralia Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for a refresher course on how our community officials deal with serious flooding, windstorms, ice storms and other weather related events.  Centralia’s EOC is small compared to bigger city locations but it serves us well.  We have all the normal EOC related positions, Incident Commander, Public Information Officer, Safety, Liaison, Operations, Planning, Logistics and finance and of course Amateur Radio but it is in an intimate setting where everyone knows each other.  When our hams connected headsets, for example, to limit noise in the room, the Incident Commander asked us to remove them so he could hear what our ARES team members were reporting saying it was exactly the information he wanted to hear.  Our ARES radios are located about eight feet from the IC’s desk and as I remind our team members, everybody hears what we say over the radios.  This first training session in October directs our team’s thinking from a simple ARES team to a larger community collection of first responders all working together for the safety of our region.

Our ARES Simulated Emergency Test (SET) exercise will follow only a few days later.  Our training tends to follow a different track quite often usually dealing with specific situations related to our community and our location.  For this SET exercise, we will simulate a failure of our main repeater requiring everyone to switch operations to our alternate repeater.  With multiple location assignments, the team will spread out and pass message traffic from the very edges of our repeater’s propagation area.  Can we operate on HT’s?  If you can’t be heard, why and what can you do to make communications work?  We’ve experienced a few minor issues with this repeater and don’t exactly know how it will perform so it’s time to put it (and us) to the test.

Fall is beautiful in our area but we have experienced four “100 year floods” in the last 20 years or so, each one coming with its own issues that push our emergency operations to the limit.  So let the leaves fall and the rain come.  It’s time to get ready for whatever Mother Nature has in store for us.