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?

Lyle Olmsted, KB7PI, Silent Key

Lyle Olmsted, KB7PI

2019 certainly ended in a way none of our team expected.  On New Year’s Eve, Lyle Olmsted, KB7PI, passed away at Centralia Providence Hospital.  In 2008, the Centralia Police Department and Riverside Fire Authority were searching for ways to overcome the sudden and destructive forces experienced during the December 2007 area wide flood that closed Interstate 5 for three days, when we created the Centralia Amateur Radio Emergency Service team.  Its purpose at the time was to provide the Centralia EOC with backup communications should all normal comms fail during a similar disaster.

The police department created a form letter and sent it out to every one of the 450 amateur radio operators in Lewis County asking if they would consider helping with the formation of an ARES team.  Lyle Olmsted was the very first volunteer, marching into my office only hours after he received the letter in the mail.  I had no idea how important this man would become to our fledgling ARES team or to me personally over the next ten years.  Lyle arrived so quickly I had only just started to create a volunteer application form for the team.  Holding an Advanced amateur radio license and a desire to make it all work, Lyle became our first Assistant Emergency Coordinator, a post he held until a year before his passing when he stepped down to become our team advisor.

Our team’s two ARES Communications vans are a tribute to Lyle’s tenacity.  Seeing a smaller box van owned by the police department that didn’t seem to have a real purpose,  he proposed we create a mobile communications van.  I’m sure when Chief Bob Berg handed me the keys and told us to have at it, he had pretty low expectations.  Over coffee, I handed Lyle the keys and said “let’s do this”.  The smile on his face was fun to see.  Over the next year, Lyle designed the interior, sought out donations and used equipment and spent hours and hours working on every detail.  When it was done, all Chief Berg could say was “Wow”.  He was so impressed, when we asked for a second identical van so we could create a second communications van, he simply handed over the keys.

4,157 days.  Lyle served the City of Centralia and Riverside Fire Authority as a Amateur Radio Emergency Service volunteer 4,157 days.  If you’re lucky, friendships can last a lifetime.  Sometimes less.  The best friend I ever had walked into my office 4,157 days ago and simply said “I’m an Amateur Radio operator and I want to help.”


Incident Command System and Resourse Request Forms

In recent months, Centralia Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) has expanded its emergency communications role becoming a SHared RESourse (SHARES) member, integrating our response capabilities with the Washington State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) and working to ensure our 60 meter capabilities.  The question always comes up asking why we need to do this and we’ve seen the answer often in our ARES work:  “When all else fails, Amateur radio works”.  The answer, for our team, is simple.  If ALL communications should fail due to a catastrophic disaster, our radio team would be tasked with creating a major communications link with the SEOC and outside response agencies.  Creating this important link cannot be left until the disaster occurs.  A major communications failure places our community in serious trouble and we want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

At Last evening’s training, retired police officer Ken Adams, KK6YUQ, gave a great presentation on the Incident Command System and how our ARES team fits into Centralia’s EOC.  Our EOC is small but has proven itself through several 100 year flood events and our amateur radio station, embedded in a corner of the EOC has been an important asset.  Ken also took the time to familiarize the team with the ICS-213 Resource Request form.  This form, becomes vital when the need arrives where our community must request outside resources after a disaster and it is important that all team members are familiar with its purpose, what it looks like, and how it will be used.  In a situation where all communications are down, expect amateur radio, the EOC’s amateur radio operators would be very busy sending these forms by voice or Winlink.

Ken brought some great training to our ARES meeting and the team responded accordingly asking important questions which resulted in several discussions about our role in Centralia’s Emergency Operations Center.  The ICS system is required by police and fire… and amateur radio.  Knowing how the Incident Command System functions and how it relates to our local ARES team will always be important.  Thanks to Ken for a great training presentation.