Lessons Learned From Training Exercises

Our Centralia Amateur Radio Emergency Service team conducts field exercises about five or six times each year.  It is always interesting to see where we do well and to discover those areas where more training is required.  We would probably do more field exercises but each one we do seems to lead to lots of indoor training trying to perfect our skills.  No exercise is 100% successful but they are never a complete failure either, and I like that.

Our most recent field exercise, held the last weekend in December, was designed around an “almost” real disaster.  On a winter Saturday morning, a two inch gas pipe ruptured.  In our exercise, it also caused an explosion knocking out communications systems and the power grid.  It also damaged our city Emergency Operations Center. Only two weeks before, a real gas pipe ruptured in the downtown area causing evacuations before the system was shut down.  No fire or explosion but the threat was very real. This is one busy scenario.  The ARES deployment notification went out, a net control was established and command & control was set up inside the main Riverside Fire Authority building.  We deployed one of our two ARES comm vans as well and requested they attempt to set up HF communications with the Washington State EOC.

Over the next couple of hours, the team was asked to perform windshield surveys to determine the scope of the power and communications outages.  We also began the process of setting up our church emergency evacuation shelter and one medivac helicopter landing zone near the disaster site.  After about three hours, we stopped the exercise and held a short debrief.

One valuable lesson all first responders learn is to determine priorities in any major event.  Find the most serious problem facing you and deal with it first.  Everything else is also prioritized and manpower is assigned as available.  In a major disaster, there are never enough people to go around and some assignments must be handled later if at all.  This bothers first responders and volunteers.  We want to help.  We want to do it all.

At our next regular training date, the team received a PowerPoint presentation about setting priorities.  As I looked across the room, I realized this was the first time many of our ARES volunteers had been asked to set priorities during a disaster, and I also realized I had failed to correctly train them how to set these same priorities.  In the weeks to come, we will fix the problem as best we can and move on.  As I said earlier, I like training exercises that show where we need improvement.  We will be better prepared for the next exercise… or the next real disaster.

Christmas Lighted Tractor Parade

ARES Comm II On Station

Who wants to come out on a cold, dark December evening and stand around for two hours or more watching some vehicles – of which only a few are actually tractors – covered in Christmas lights drive down the street?  Well, apparently everyone in and around beautiful, historic downtown Centralia does!  The Centralia Christmas Lighted Tractor Parade has been around for a few years now and it just gets bigger and bigger every year.  The number of parade entries last year was around 56 but this year it topped 90.

And this isn’t one of those quiet parade.  Oh, no, its a Christmas party on wheels with singing, bands playing, Christmas music on every float and dancing in the streets.  Yup, when it comes to a lighted tractor parade, we know how to party!  This year Centralia ARES had 10 volunteers and two communications vans working the parade.  CPD had 9 officers,sergeants, and two command staff doing walking patrols, on bicycles or in patrol cars.  Riverside Fire Chief Mike Kytta redirected a couple of his aid crews around the parade route and had his small, quick response vehicle in the downtown area as well.

With 10 volunteers, the ARES team was spread out to cover about every other intersection.  The first intersection required two volunteers and two police officers working crowd control to keep the kids back and out from under the floats but even that wasn’t enough.  One ARES communications van held the net control and the other van, set up on the

One of 90+ parade entries

far side of the parade monitored a safety channel just in case one of the volunteers needed help.  We were also responsible for delivering and setting up the police department’s communication and command van.  This year, however, it was never used as the Sergeant Patty Finch, the officer in charge of the parade, spent much of her time monitoring the event from inside our ARES van as we had a nice heater going.  Unfortunately for her, when things started to get hectic, out she went into the cold.

Thankfully, just as planned, the parade ended without any major problems or incidents.  It was evident that everyone had a good time.  By 9pm, Centralia ARES had all the vans back in their facilities and all team members accounted for and

Pollice Chief Carl Nielsen

heading home.  Centralia holds two major parades each year, the other being the July 4th Summerfest parade but for us, the Christmas Lighted Tractor Parade is the most fun.  From the looks of it, all those folks standing out in the cold appreciated it as well.  Must be the Christmas season.

Flood Windshield Survey Site Tour

Chehalis River Bridge

As flood season approaches in the Chehalis River valley, Centralia ARES has been busy ramping up for another year of unknowns.  Will it be a year of minor flooding or is it time for another 100 year event?  Only time will tell.  During flood events, ARES volunteers guard sandbag locations, man the Emergency Operations Center amateur radios, and conduct street by street windshield surveys among other assignments.  Knowing the locations where we can assess flooding on area rivers and creeks is important but many of these places are hard to find, especially for new team members.

Saturday, October 13th, the team took a tour visiting 18 sites on all four of the important waterways in our community.  These consisted of two locations on the Chehalis River, four on the Skookumchuck River, six on China Creek and three on Salzer Creek.  Additionally, we visited several dike locations and the China Creek Flood Mitigation Project site.

Stopping at each location, team members were able to see, first hand, the exact same locations they will be visiting during their flood surveys.  We discussed how and why these rivers and creeks flooded and were able to describe how flood waters affect the streets and neighborhoods in each area.  Finally we discussed the dike system that surrounds Centralia and how that functions to protect the community.

The team has been working on information sheets that will ultimately go into their field resource manuals that provide information on each of these sites as well.  Information will include a street addresses, GPS coordinates, safety concerns, general information about each site and photos.

China Creek in Downtown Centralia

For Centralia ARES, a flood event windshield survey means combining two pieces of information into one reporting system.  Over a two or three hour survey period, team members are asked to stop at the places in their respective emergency response divisions where they can view the river or creek flows.  They provide a radio report back to the EOC on what they see and report changes they have noticed hour by hour.  When away from the river locations, the team conducts a street by street community assessment reporting power outages, water over various roads or dangerous situations, then it’s back to the rivers and creeks to see if there are changes in the flood.  A complete report from each team not only gives the EOC photos or descriptions of the flooding situation but also provides a complete community picture for the Incident Commander who cannot leave the EOC to see conditions for himself.

The APRSdroid tracking system we have been experimenting with this fall does a wonderful job of tracking each windshield survey team and allows the volunteers in the EOC to show their progress to the entire incident command team on the computers and TVs in the EOC.

Floods generally don’t come as a surprise to our community.  The National Weather Service does a great job providing days of warning.  Still, a flood is an unsettling event and the large floods can be devastating.  Being prepared to assist our served agencies to the best of our abilities is important to our team.  Every hour spent in preparation makes us better at what we do and we plan to do our best.