Off To Comm Academy

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Our annual maintenance trip to the Centralia City Shop is complete. There were a few more repairs found than we had on our list but, as usual Matt and Terry at the shop did an amazing job. Now it is time for our annual trip to the Seattle Communications Academy where we will once again display our two comm vans during Saturday’s “show and tell”.

Leaving beautiful, historic Centralia at 5:30am to arrive at the South Seattle Community College no later than 7:30am requires a large infusion of coffee to get our older and more mature volunteers moving at that time of day but we’ll manage somehow. This will be our third year as part of the response vehicle display. Each year we’ve enjoyed meeting people from all over the Pacific Northwest. While there are always larger, more expensive vehicles on display, many seem to enjoy seeing what can be done on a smaller budget.

Our vans were found through military surplus (Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office) and are owned, maintained, insured, licensed and fueled by the Centralia Police Department but permanently assigned to the Amateur Radio Emergency Service team. Approximately 500 volunteer hours went into each van. Equipment estimates run around $6,500 per van. Since we are part of the Western Washington Section Emergency Communications Group, a 501(c)3 organization, we were able to seek funding from various groups such as TwinStar Credit Union and the Chehalis Indian Tribe to cover the entire cost of outfitting each van.

Basic communications equipment includes a Vhf radio and CB in the driver’s cab. In the communications bay there are three Vhf/Uhf dual band radios, a digital station, an Icom IC-7300 HF radio, and a fire/law radio. There are additional scanners, amateur radio HT’s and fire/law HT’s as well.

These vans have suited our team very well. They are small enough for all team members to feel comfortable driving them but large enough and versatile enough to go anywhere. They can run off battery or generator in addition to the normal shore power and have a great little heater which is always a plus in the Pacific Northwest. While the team can use a much larger command & control vehicle also owned by the police department, we much prefer our smaller comm vans. Comm IV, a small towable communications trailer built as a project by team members, is dedicated to shelter communications. Between the four communications vehicles, we can cover almost any requirement up to and including using the vans as a mobile Emergency Operations Center.

If you are going to the Seattle Communications Academy this year, please stop by our vans and say hello. We’ll give you the grand tour and may even have coffee available.

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.