On the eve of the 2015 Atlantic Hurricane Season, Amateur Radio Emergency Service volunteers from Florida’s three ARRL Sections took part in a statewide hurricane response and communications exercise. Hurricane season began June 1 and continues through November. Florida is no stranger to hurricanes and other severe weather, including tropical storms and tornadoes, and it is not the home of the National Hurricane Center (and its WX4NHC) by chance.
The objectives of the May 30 exercise were to evaluate current procedures and preparedness, identify possible areas for improvement, and achieve a collaborative posture with partner agencies. A major goal was to assess the ability of participants to establish and maintain multidisciplinary communication networks during a response to a Category 3 hurricane making land fall in Florida. During the exercise, participants responded to simulated events and information as they would have done in a real emergency.
ARES groups taking part used ICS/NIMS-compliant forms for reporting, and communication modes were primarily RF-based and not overly dependent on Internet systems, although common hybrid platforms were tested, including D-RATS, Winlink, and others. Power sources were independent of commercial mains. ARES groups were tasked with activating and staffing a local emergency operations center (EOC) and deploying volunteers to any two agencies served by the group, such as a shelter, Red Cross center, The Salvation Army facility, or local public safety agency. Once on site, ARES exercise participants established communication links and provided their served agency, street address, and point of contact to the county EOC.
In turn, EOC operators checked into a net to relay that information, a test message, and situation reports (SITREPs) to county ARES Emergency Coordinators (ECs). The ECs then sent activation, deployment locations, contact information, check-in data, and messages to Section Emergency Coordinators (SECs) as a SITREP. Exercise summaries were forwarded to the Florida State Emergency Support Function #2 Communications Coordinator at the state EOC by day’s end.
ARRL Northern Florida Section Manager Steve Szabo, WB4OMM, had exhorted his ARES team members to “have fun, work with your peers, and think creatively.” He judged the exercise a success, because, he said, “we found some things that didn’t work” that his ARES teams needed to address. SEC Strait Hollis, KT4YA, has been compiling a section-wide after-action report. Initial exercise observations included 80 meter propagation challenges to the Northern Florida Net, necessitating a shift to the net’s alternate 40 meter frequency. In addition, a key ARES asset, the Orange City Statewide Amateur Radio Network (SARnet) linked UHF repeater system was down. More message-handling training for operators was also indicated, but Szabo concluded that all operators learned something from the exercise, and he was pleased with the large number of groups and volunteers taking part.
ARRL Southern Florida Section Manager Jeff Beals, WA4AW, and Section Emergency Coordinator Larry Zimmer, W4LWZ, reported that five major Southern Florida Section counties participated in the Statewide Hurricane drill. Broward County ARES/RACES operators activated their VHF network, exercising their local nets. Operators also made contact with the State EOC in Tallahassee on the SARnet, but were unable to reach the State EOC on HF, although other groups in Southern Florida had greater success. Indian River County ARES/RACES participated in a table-top version of the exercise with its county emergency management team. Martin County operators activated their EOC and Red Cross facilities. Palm Beach County ARES/RACES operators checked into the State EOC net on HF and the SARnet from the local EOC.
ARRL West Central Florida Section Manager Darrell Davis, KT4WX, stressed the critical — and ongoing — process of developing a framework for all three Florida Sections to interface with the State EOC during hurricane events. He said the SMs met during the Orlando Hamcation in February to continue that process,” Davis reported. He said all three Florida SMs consider their individual sections as “branch offices of the same organization.”
“That is the way it should be,” he added. “We get together whenever we have the opportunity.” — Thanks to The ARES E-Letter