Designing A Disaster

As October arrives, our ARES team once again ramps up for the “Mother Nature Picks On The Pacific Northwest” season.  Training is switching from the wildfire preparations of summer to our fall flood response activities.  It has been awhile since we’ve worked a good disaster exercise, so we decided to create one. During our October 7th training night, the team chose to design a 6.0 earthquake from a series of nine disaster scenarios that included floods, wildfires, wind storms and even a hurricane.  The plan is to design a disaster selected by group consensus and then put that plan to the test during a field exercise on our October 21st training.  We’ll debrief the exercise at our first November meeting and then create a better disaster.

After deciding on an earthquake disaster, the next step was to list what kind of communications support would be required. The list of those we potentially needed to talk to included: police / fire department response teams, the Emergency Coordination Center (ECC), the State EOC, adjoining Lewis County ARES team and perhaps regions outside the disaster area via HF communications. Next the team determined possible support functions during and after an earthquake.  These included: ARES Command, possible shelter comms, staffing the ECC, windshield survey teams, evacuation support and creating helicopter landing zones.

A general list of required response equipment was next.  This included:  personal HT’s and mobile radios, go-bags and safety equipment, both ARES communications vans, helicopter LZ equipment bags, map books, a portable generator and even making sure our hazardous material identification app was up to date on cell phones.  A list of assignments included: radio operators, LZ teams, evacuation planning personnel, ARES communication van staff, including scribes, windshield survey teams, net control operators and an ARES command officer.

Finally, the team included a couple of possible “inserts” to be added if time allows.  These would include 10 meter / 6 meter ground wave communication tests, UHF/VHF crossband tests on our local repeater, simplex relays using HT’s and even a minor medical response for an injured ARES team member.  The ARES staff will refine this disaster scenario at our coffee meetings over the next two weeks and we should be ready to deal with a short – two hour – disaster exercise at our next meeting.

Our next ARES training session will be Monday, October 21st.  We’ll begin the exercise with a “tone out” using our Telegram alert system.  Team members will check into the net control and will be sent to the deployment area at the Mt. View Baptist Church.  There, everyone will receive a short safety briefing, an incident action plan summary, and frequency / personnel assignments.  We will check all our equipment and see if we can help save our community from this disaster.  Even though this is a short field exercise, it will allow us to test critical response systems and short of a torrential downpour that evening, it should be fun.  But perhaps our team member John, AD6KT, is right.  His motto is “If it ain’t raining, it ain’t training”.


Do We Have Hurricanes In the Pacific Northwest? Yes We Do!

By the time people in the Pacific Northwest woke up on Friday, October 12, 1962, “Freda” had been on the move for some time.  She formed as a typhoon 500 miles west of Wake Island in the central Pacific Ocean a week earlier.  As she moved north into colder waters  and interacted with the jet stream, Freda became an extratropical cyclone.  Freda arrived in Northern California as winds pushed her ashore, delaying some games in the 1962 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the New York Yankees.

Freda officially became “Hurricane Freda” when she touched landfall in the United States.  Hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons are basically the same types of storms, often labelled differently by their windspeed .  Storms in the Atlantic Ocean are usually identified as hurricanes with the storms in the Pacific Ocean called typhoons or cyclones

Now on land, Hurricane Freda hooked straight north as she moved into southwest Oregon, bringing a pressure which would be equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale.  As Friday, October 12th dawned, few in the Pacific Northwest were aware of what the day would bring.  Oregon’s Cape Blanco soon measured wind gusts at 145 miles per hour while the Naselle Radar Station in the Willapa Hills of southwest Washington logged winds of 160 miles per hour.  Wind gusts in Portland, Oregon reached 116 mph, while Olympia officially measured 88mph.

Those living in eastern Washington experienced damaging high winds as well.  When the roof blew off a neighbor’s house where I lived in the town of Sunnyside in the Yakima Valley, my mother hustled me into a basement room with no windows for the next few hour.  Damaging winds reached as far inland as Spokane.

At lease 46 fatalities were attributed to Freda, more than for any other Pacific Northwest weather event.  Injuries went into the hundreds.  In less than 12 hours, more than 11 billion board feet of timber was blown down in northern California, Oregon and Washington.  Estimates put the dollar damage at over $2 Billion in today’s dollars.  The Metropolitan Life Insurance company named the Columbus Day Storm the nation’s worst natural disaster of 1962 as Hurricane Freda was labelled as the “most powerful extratropical cyclone recorded in the U.S in the 20th century.”

Few places in the United States are immune to natural disasters and the Pacific Northwest is no exception.  While wildfires, floods and earthquakes occur more often, we manage to get a volcanic eruption and even the occasional hurricane from time to time.  The next time someone tells you we don’t get hurricanes in the Pacific Northwest, relate the story of Hurricane Freda.  For a little kid hustled into the basement after witnessing the neighbor’s roof blown off their house, it was an experience never to be forgotten.

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.