Time For Our Annual Checkup

Comm II up on the hoist for its annual check up.

We are preparing for our annual trip to the Seattle Communications Academy in April.  For the third year in a row, we will have our two communications vans, Comm II and Comm III, on display.  The Comm Academy is a two day event.  On Saturday, several ARES teams and cities display their response and/or communications vehicles.  Between classes, those attending the training can step outside and look over the eight or ten vehicles on display.  Some are very large response vehicles costing many thousands of dollars and some are very expensive government comm vehicles probably costing millions. (when asked, they roll their eyes and say if they told us the total costs, they would have to kill us).  Among these vehicles there are two or three smaller ARES team vehicles.  Centralia is the only team displaying two communications vehicles.

Before we go, however, it is time for our annual checkups.  The Centralia City Shop maintains our comm vans.  They are amazingly helpful.  At the slightest hiccup, they roll up the shop doors, roll up their sleeves, and work until our babies are fully functional once again.  Today, it is mostly about an oil change and a few minor repairs which include a burned out taillight.  I don’t know what we would do without these guys.

At the 2018 Seattle Communications Academy

In about a month, we’ll be off to the comm academy.  We’ve really enjoyed displaying our vans at this event.  Attendees seem interested in the conversion process from two former military flight line maintenance vehicles into these amazingly well equipped emergency communications vans.  They ask a thousand questions, take lots of photos and often return throughout the day to ask more questions.  They seem to like the “rags to riches” story of creating a fully functional communications vehicle with volunteer help and a few thousand dollars worth of equipment.  We’re proud of our vans and always happy to show them off.

If you are attending this year’s Seattle Communications Academy, come visit our van display and say “hello”.  We’re always glad to have visitors and love to tell how these vehicles evolved.

Nighttime Helicopter Landing Zone Exercise

Skip, K1HEK, conducting a radio test with Central Dispatch

It is dark tonight and cold.  The stars sparkle in the late winter sky and the temperatures hover around 23 degrees.  The snow is finally gone and it is a great evening to practice nighttime landing zone setups so out into the night we go.  This evening we’re not using one of the designated team LZ’s.  Nope, we found a flat, gravel lot surrounded with 360 degrees of LZ issues.  The lot is just barely big enough for a 100 x 100 foot LZ.  To the south is an eight story apartment building.  To the east is a four story church.  To the west is a three story structure and there are light poles and electric wires aplenty.

Once our ARES Communications van is set up on the east side of the potential landing zone, Skip, K1HEK, brings up all the communications systems and makes sure they are operating as they should.  As part of tonight’s exercise, we do a communications test with the Lewis County Central Dispatch on the fire department’s REDNET frequency – the channel used for normal medical helicopter comms in our area.  All is well and we have a strong signal into dispatch.

Meanwhile, four other other team members are busy setting out the 100 x 100 foot landing zone with an orange traffic cone at each corner.  Tonight, the winds are negligible so no cones showing wind direction are put out.  Once the cones are in place FRED (flashing roadside emergency discs) lights are placed atop each corner traffic cone.  Don, KI7ZNG, is busy determining the GPS coordinates for our temporary landing zone.  Finally, each member of the landing zone team works together to prepare a pilot briefing.  The briefing must include the GPS coordinates, warnings about overhead wires, light standards, flag poles and of course those multi-story buildings.  The pilot will need a physical description (downtown parking lot – flat with gravel surface) with the LZ set out using orange traffic cones with flashing red lights on them.  Surface winds are negligible but we will keep an eye on the flag atop a nearby building just in case.  Even though our medivac helicopter is only 15 minutes away, the team has managed to set up the LZ and prepare a pilot briefing before the sound of an approaching helicopter would be heard.  Maybe it is the cold but the team worked well

Paul, KE7PCB, aligning the LZ cones

together with only a few disagreements about directions.

With no real helicopter coming tonight and with the temperature dropping, we picked up and repacked everything and headed back the the Emergency Operations Center where it was warm to debrief and go over our pilot briefing notes. The team finishes the evening’s training with a discussion about safety issues.  An interesting question comes up.  Could one team member, with one of our communications vans, set up and run the entire landing zone?  We decide it could be done if manpower levels required it but communications with the pilot would need to be done outside where the landing zone officer could have a 360 degree view.  This would also require the use of the van’s HT using 5 watts instead of the normal 50 watt radios permanently attached inside the van.  As long as we had an obstruction free signal to the helicopter, the job could be done safely.

Why do we practice setting up a helicopter landing zone in the dark and in the cold?  Because bad things happen and if the fire department or the police department needed a landing zone set up in a hurry, there simply would not be enough time to ask questions.  The job would need to be done quickly and safely in under 15 minutes.  Besides, it beats sitting around watching old movies on the TV.  Thanks to the team members willing to brave the cold last evening.  In two hours, you have made our community a safer place to work and live.

The Importance Of Being A Multi-functional Response Unit


Every one of our ARES team members owns one or more, often many more, amateur radios.  When you attend training or exercises, we assume you always come prepared to use your personal radios but that may not be enough.  During our last exercise we needed to use our HF radio systems and our digital systems to talk with the State Emergency Operations Center.  Unfortunately, most arrived with only VHF radio capability, usually a mobile radio in their personal vehicles.

With only one ARES communications van deployed and one team member available with mobile HF capability, this severely limited our ability to perform the mission  To make matters worse, the only team member with HF capability was soon attached to the van cutting our HF capabilities in half.  With the added assignment to quickly set up a helicopter landing zone,  requiring our van which carried the LZ equipment, our ability to do both HF contacts with the State EOC AND deal with landing zone preparations created more than we could handle.  Thankfully, we had one team member at his home with both HF and digital capabilities who could assist.

While our team does a great job of prioritizing mission needs in our training scenarios, we need to maximize our communications capability among each and every team member.  With the vast majority of our ARES personnel either Extra or General class hams, meeting the licensing requirements for HF work is not a problem.  For some, adding HF to their vehicles is a cash flow issue, while others struggle with installing HF equipment in their vehicles and making it all work.  Still, even one or two additional mobiles with HF capability greatly expands our capabilities.

Have you been thinking of adding an HF radio to your vehicle?  Every additional HF radio available on scene during a disaster or even an exercise makes a huge difference in what we can accomplish.  The team has several knowledgeable people capable of helping you install and set up a multi-functional communications system.  Even if adding an HF radio to your vehicle is not possible at this time, there are other options.  Take the time to learn about how to operate the HF (and digital) systems in both Comm Vans.  The option of taking you out of your own car that has only VHF capability and placing you in the vans as a primary HF operator is significant.  As ARRL Chief Executive Officer Howard Michel reported in this month’s QST magazine, “Hobbies are undertaken in one’s leisure time for pleasure.  Services activities (ARES) helps someone else”.  Being an Amateur Radio Emergency Service team member means stepping up your game.  Have you done everything possible to maximize your ability to serve our community and our first responders?