LOCAL EMERGENCY RESPONSE COMMUNICATION NET CALLED INTO SERVICE
ERC Lindon Training Oct 9, 2012
My name is Darvell Hunt, N7LN, and I am the Stake Emergency Radio Communication Specialist for the Saratoga Springs Utah South Stake ERC. 18 months ago, our stake on the west side of Utah Lake had no significant emergency radio network whatsoever; since that time, our net has been activated on three different occasions, two of which were for very serious events, and one of which could be considered a minor disaster.
Just a year and a half ago, our Stake President, Ronald Edwards, was inspired to organize our stake for emergency preparedness, with particular focus on emergency communications. Shortly after I became involved, my stake president told me he had a feeling that our area would need emergency preparations soon, and specifically communications. He said he didn’t want to alarm us, but he felt such preparations were imedidately necessary. I don’t know if the reason he organized our net was because of the three events we’ve had so far, or if there is something bigger to come; but we are now prepared—or at least, we are better prepared than we were then. From my recent epxeriences, I now know that our emergency communications preparations HAVE been an inspired endeavor.
When President Edwards discovered that the Church utilizes HAM Radio operators for emergency communications, he immediately studied for and passed his Technician Class license, because he told me that he wasn’t going to ask anyone else to do something he wasn’t willing to do himself. So, that’s how our Stake President came to be known as KF7RCZ.
Within just three months, he activated many HAMs in our stake, including myself, and we created the backbone of what would become our emergency ERC group. We now have almost 25 licensed operators in our stake net and typically have 15 -18 of those checking in every Sunday night, with 11 of those licensed within just the past two years.
On May 31 of this year (2012), our emergency response communication net was activated under the direction of President Edwards, for a fire that was in the hills two to three miles south of our stake. Nobody was evacuated, but a few homeowners were put on alert by local law enforcement. This fire ended up being good practice for our emergency net, but no harm was done.
Not quite a month later, on June 22, we again activated our net for what would become known as the Dump Fire, which was a wildfire on Lake Mountain on the west side of Utah Lake. This time, the fire was about two miles north of the southern-most homes in our stake, but on the mountainside. Three and a half wards in our stake were evacuated by local authorities and the fire came to within yards of damaging homes. Our ERC net was paramount in keeping communication active within our stake, and specifically maintaining communication with our priesthood authorities. During this time, cell phones were still active, but services were degraded due to use. Those who had access to our net had the best information about what was going on. Fortunately, no loss of life or property occurred, but we again gained valuable knowledge and practical experience—which we would again soon need.
On September 1, disaster struck our stake. We had a massive storm of rain and hail in the exact location where the previous fire had destroyed vegetation. Flash flooding occurred almost immediately, with mud and water flooding into and destroying more than a dozen basements and damaging other homes and yards.
Fortunately, everybody was safe again, but the homes were another story. The damage was localized, but staggering, as was broadcast on the local television news. Our ERC net provided communication and logistics for sand bagging that night until about 4am, and then provided organization and communication for the next two days as volunteers arrived for cleanup. Our ERC members performed admirably and were a major help to the victims, and our net allowed our Stake President complete control over the affected area. Was our net perfect? Absolutely not. But we were prepared and we made a big difference.
Now I’d like to move onto what we did right and what we did wrong. First of all, during our net activation, we quickly helped out a lot of people in a very bad situation. We fulfilled our callings as emergency communicators and we got the job done—everything else was secondary to that.
However, I would like to list a few specific things we learned. First, I want to start with my DO LIST.
1. DO practice operating your net as much as possible. Since we started about a year and a half ago, we’ve been meeting virtually every Sunday night on the air and giving opportunity to most of our net members to be net control.
2. When operating as net control, you really need three people, if possible. You need a net control, someone logging the net activities, and you need a third person onsite for logistics, who can locate needed equipment, arrange manpower at various locations, and other logistical needs.
3. At the gathering point for volunteers—if you have such—you should create a “needs board.” We used a white board on the lawn of the church. When logistics communicates to the volunteer-gathering point, which was at our stake center, items that are needed onsite can be written on the needs board for volunteers arriving to view. If new arrivals have items listed on the board, in either in their cars or at home, they can be asked to retrieve them.
4. Your net will run more smoothly if you use tactical call signs only, and have net control call for FCC call sign identifications every ten minutes. Unneccessary identification wastes time and can introduce confusion.
5. Wear clothing that distinguishes you from other volunteers. You can wear a colored vest, possibly with wording such as COMMUNICATOR, or your call sign. Or a hat or a badge. Anything can work—even coordinated shirt colors. It’s also useful to have a radio harness, either a chest pack or a belt pack, so you don’t have to worry about handling your radio. It’s also nice if your pack can store extra batteries, snacks, and a pad and pen.
6. Also make sure you have a good speaker mic. An emergency site can and will get very busy and noisy. You need to be able to hear your radio above all other noise.
7. Work closely with your site commander. Any emergency must have someone in charge. Make sure that your site commander knows who you are and knows that you have communication throughout the disaster site.
8. Make sure you have as much battery power as your shift will require—and then double it. If your battery power fails, you are useless as a communicator. I recommend having two rechargeable batteries and then an extra alkaline battery pack, just in case. And make sure your batteries are always charged.
9. DO recruit members in your stake and in your wards to become licensed operators, and get those who are already licensed involved, if they have interest. And DO try to get your priesthood authority interested in your stake communications. That may be a challenge, but it’s nice if you find leaders with a high level of interest, like our stake president had.
So, that’s a short list of positives, and it’s certainly not complete, but I tried to hit on the most significant points. Now onto the negatives. Try NOT to do these things:
1. Make sure your communicators don’t get worn out. We operated our flood net for three days straight and most of our net members overextended themselves. As soon as your net starts, begin thinking about the next wave of relief communicators, and start reaching out to other radio groups. Don’t wait—we made that mistake and we lost effectiveness because of it.
2. Don’t use FCC call signs. This was mentioned in the DO LIST above, but it’s very important. Sure, we must keep it legal by identifying every 10 minutes, but tactical call signs make an emergency net much more efficient. And as communicators get relieved, the tactical call signs remain in place and are handed off to the next guy. Net control should not need to remember which FCC call signs are assigned to which areas. Our tactical call signs included street names and affected homeowner last names. Use whatever makes sense.
3. Don’t rely upon your net control for logging. He or she will be too busy. Don’t underestimate how important it is to have somebody else logging net operations, and, if possible, somebody else doing logistics as well. A three-man team works best. You’ll need to refer to the log as requested assets or manpower become available and then you can dispatch them to where they were requested.
4. Rotate the net control frequently. Acting as net control can be exhausting, trust me; this is one area in which we could have used improvement.
5. Don’t let yourself become dehydrated or go too long without food. Keep your body maintained, just like your radio equipment, and you’ll be able to be an effective communicator.
6. Don’t try to learn how to use your radio in an emergency. Know the likely frequencies you will use, including any PL tones, and how your radio works. Chances are, you will need to change frequencies during your net and you’ll be in trouble if you don’t know how to do it.
That’s the basics of what we learned. We didn’t do everything right, but we got the job done, and we did a lot of good for a lot of people who needed it. We’ll certainly be better prepared for next time, although I don’t mind if the next time doesn’t come soon—but it’ll come, and when you least expect it.
So, my final advice is to practice, practice, practice. Get your stake communication nets up and running. It can be tedious and even discouraging, but when an emergency hits, the time for preparation is over, and you’ll either get the job done for which you were called, or you won’t. You have to choose to do it NOW. Don’t wait. Follow the Boy Scout motto and Be Prepared, and then disaster strikes, you’ll already know what to do.