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.

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!