Madison ARES in QST

Madison ARES wishes to thank Rick Palm and ARRL for this fine article.

Reprinted with permission

Copyright ARRL ©

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( reformatted for the page)

Rick Palm

The Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is a central, usually hardened facility from which government agencies provide inter-agency and emergency support function (ESF) coordination. During an emergency or disaster, the EOC is where the executive decisions are made concerning the best ways to respond to the incident. The emergency manager keeps the elected officials informed of these decisions in preparation for any policy decisions that may be necessary-

The EOC is involved with strategy. It typically does not provide command or control of the active responders themselves or other aspects of the on-scene response. These functions and frontline tactical decisions are left to the incident commander and his/her general staff.

The EOC collects and evaluates information, sets priorities, and manages resources.  Communications is the key to an effective EOC operation, which must have current information on the various aspects of the incident in order to be effective in its management. Amateur Radio has historically had an important, longstanding role in this regard.

The EOC is often organized based on the various ESFs; for example, the Communications function is ESF #2 (see Table l). Physically, each ESF manager has a desk or seat at the main table in the conference room. Public safety dispatch/911 and public warning systems are often located together. Various communication systems are in place, and Amateur Radio operators often provide alternate communications between the different ESF managers in the field, and between the emergency manager and his or her counterparts at the incident command post or other locations.

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I took readers on a tour of a large, modem county EOC in this column in October 2007.1 More recently, I provided a context for Amateur Radio in the EOC in the February 2012 column? In March, at the invitation of Madison county (Florida) ARES Emergency Coordinator Pat Lightcap, K4NRD, I toured the county EOC and gave a talk to the ARES group there.

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Madison County, Florida EOC

With a population of 19,000 in 716 square miles of bucolic farmland, beautiful rolling hills, forests, and rivers in the northern Florida panhandle, Madison county is rural and sparsely populated. Its EOC is in a small (roughly 2000 square feet) but attractive brick building on a hill. A radio communications tower and antennas are located on the grounds. Alan Whigham, KI4IFH, the new EOC’ director, has an office on the right as you enter. The Madison EOC is nationally accredited by the Emergency Management Accreditation Program (EMAP).

The main conference room takes up most of the building and is positioned in the innermost area, for protection from potential storms. Surrounding the main conference table are desks for each emergency support function.

Communications Room

The Communications Room is adjacent to the main conference room so that messages can be passed back and forth efficiently. EOC communications systems include SATCOM data/voice radios (12 channels), with links to the county sheriff’s office. A VHF repeater system (there is no 800 MHZ trunking system) handles public safety communications. There is a “hotline” (a red phone with no buttons or dial) to the Governor’s office. There is also a low-band VHF radio for communications with American Red Cross shelters in the county, and another low-band radio for communications with the state prison system.

Amateur Radio in the Communications Room

The communications room includes a well-equipped amateur station. An HF radio (see Figure 1) gives the operators the capability of communicating with the amateur station at the state EOC in Tallahassee, the various state and regional ARES nets, and other emergency/disaster nets on 80 and 40 meters.

With VHF and UHF radios in the communications room, EOC/ARES operators have access to the county’s three repeater systems. The primary link is the UHF: repeater that links into the Florida Statewide Amateur Radio Network (SARnet) repeaters. SARnet repeaters are positioned throughout the state and are connected by a state DOT microwave network (wwvwusametfl.com). A UHF repeater located near the EOC in the county seat of Madison, and a VHF repeater in the small town of Lee provide local communications.

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Madison County ARES

Emergency Coordinator Pat Lightcap, K4NRD, who has served in the position for more than 30 years, leads the small but dedicated and motivated ARES group (see Figure 2). Lightcap was originally appointed by former Northern Florida Section Manager Rudy Hubbard, WA4PUR Lightcap also worked with George Thurston, W4MLE (SK), the veteran Section Emergency Coordinator. I found Lightcap to be affable, experienced, and a competent leader — all qualities of a good emergency coordinator.

There are currently a dozen members of the ARES team who attend 6 to 8 meetings a year. They are all SKYWARN trained spotters, and have been participating in the program for 20 years. They are a diverse group with one thing in common: a passion for Amateur Radio and emergency/disaster communications.

ARES Activations History

In 2007, the group was activated for a major telephone outage, which received coverage in a 2007 QST article 3 A damaged fiber optic cable cut off long-distance and DSL Internet services to Madison and other rural counties. The NOAA weather radio went down, and when Lightcap called the National Weather Service office in Tallahassee, he only received a fast busy signal. Other calls to Tallahassee also failed. Lightcap was able to contact the Madison county sheriff’s department dispatch/911 center, only to learn that their computers were also down. The local hospital could not call out to arrange patient transfers to the Tallahassee hospitals; law enforcement could not contact Florida Highway Patrol for accidents, and no calls could be made to medevac helicopters for trauma victims. In response to this communications chaos, Lightcap offered his group’s service to the emergency manager.

Lightcap contacted a ham in Tallahassee and started an informal net on a repeater where other hams began to accumulate.  One of these hams was able to make and maintain contact with the National Weather Service office and the Florida Highway Patrol dispatch center, providing communications access to these vital services. Another made contact with the regional hospitals in the state capital to provide communications for the local hospital, if necessary. Others came up on the net frequency and the net evolved from a spontaneous informal one to a more formal structure. The next task was to establish backup communications, which was accomplished via a cross-link VHF/ UHF system.

The sheriff ’s office eventually found and tested an old telephone landline to the state EOC, and ARES was able to stand down.  As a result of the rapid, spontaneous response of many individual hams to the emergency, a solid relationship was forged between ARES and the emergency manager, sheriff, and other public safety officials.  Earlier this year, when severe Weather moved through the area, the National Weather Service office in Tallahassee took in local operators to take SKYWARN reports from the surrounding counties, including the SKYWARN operators who are the members of Madison County ARES.

Epilogue

This was my second visit with a rural northern Florida club and ARES group in 3 months. I enjoyed both visits. All were attentive, well-informed members who kept me on my toes with some very good questions! When most of us think of ARES, we tend to think of the larger county programs and a wider array of served agencies, incidents, and events. My visits with the Madison and Suwannee county groups showed me that small, but passionate and dedicated ARES communicators can supply critical safety of life and property communications.  They showed me that ARES and Amateur Radio are alive and well, and vital in rural America.

 

Notes

  1. R. Palm, K1CE, “Public Service,” QST, OCT 2007, p 77 — 78.
  2.  R. Palm, K1CE, “Public Service,” QST, Feb 2012, p 88 — 89.
  3. P. Lightcap, WD4ODB, “Public Service,” QST, May 2007, p 78 – 79.

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