September 2013

The Amateur Amateur: My First Deployment
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H

It was a horrible night. The wind was fierce and the rain was pounding against our window panes. Weather alerts had been issued and sirens were wailing. My wife Nancy was in the study, nervously looking out the window. Our dog Ariel had sought shelter under the desk.

blue tarp on roof I had just finished with the weekly St. Louis County ARES net and had come upstairs to type up my notes. As I entered the study, Nancy turned toward me to tell me something. Before she could say anything, though, there was a sickening, wrenching sound followed by loud crash. Oh Lord, I thought. Something hit the roof.

As it turned out, my main antenna mast had ripped free and fallen.

When I discovered what had happened I felt very sorry for myself. But as it turned out, far worse events had transpired in the neighboring city of Hazelwood. A tornado had touched down in a residential neighborhood and had devastated it. After I heard that, I felt very lucky to have gotten off with just a toppled mast.

The following day I disassembled my downed mast and threw a tarp over the damaged section of my roof. I was contemplating repairs when I received an unexpected email message from Steve Wooten, KC0QMU, who is our ARES team's Emergency Coordinator. Amateur radio operators were being asked to provide emergency communications in north county. That undoubtedly meant Hazelwood.

What? Really? I was eager to help, but a little apprehensive as well. I'd been a member of the local ARES team for ten years, but we'd never been activated before. This was my first time. I'd trained diligently, though, and had participated in numerous exercises, so I figured I was as prepared as I'd ever be.

command trailer The call-out itself was somewhat perplexing. I knew that our ARES team had no agreement with Hazelwood. I answered Steve's message and said that I could respond to the call-out, but whom were we supporting? Steve replied that it was not an ARES call-out. He had been contacted by Mike Bien, KB0PDL, who was working with some other agency. He'd asked Steve to recruit volunteers for the disaster relief effort.

That gave me pause. Our ARES group follows the structure and guidelines put together by the American Radio Relay League. There is a certain comfort in knowing that what you're doing is based on the knowledge of countless other operators and accumulated over many years of experience. I was less certain about working for another group, serving an unknown agency. I did know Mike, however, so I contacted him and asked him where to go and to whom I should report. I was given the location of the Hazelwood Disaster Command Center and told to report to the assistant fire chief.

Well, I said that I've participated in many exercises and drills, but it was immediately apparent that the Real Thing was something else altogether. Traffic was horrendous. Not only was it rush hour, but the direct route to the Command Center was blocked. So were the side roads leading to it. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was trying to drive right through the heart of the disaster scene itself. Eventually, though, I circled around to a different compass point and found a road that was open. I immediately got mired in an unbelievable traffic jam. Whereas I had been getting nowhere fast, I was now getting somewhere, but extremely slowly.

bucket trucks at work Man, it took forever.

Now the real confusion began.

I finally reached the tiny strip mall where the Command Center had been set up. I pulled into the lot and was immediately challenged by a police officer. I told him that I was supposed to report to the assistant fire chief. He replied that the fire department had no one at the scene, and that I should try the Hazelwood Fire Station, which was about a mile back up the road I had just traversed.

Oh boy.

I turned around and headed back. Traffic was a bit lighter going in the other direction and it didn't take me long to reach the fire station. When I arrived, ARES volunteer and Hazelwood CERT member Bob Ernst, KC0NRK pulled in behind me. We reported in.

And no one had any idea why we'd been sent there. The Fire Department had not requested CERT, ARES, or any other volunteers. They thanked us for coming and sent us on our way.

Not knowing what to do next, I got on the radio and called Mike. I explained that there were no fire officials at the Command Center and that the Fire Department said that it did not need us. What were his instructions? He told me to go back to the Command Center and this time to say that I was providing communications for the Red Cross.

damaged house Sighing, I crossed my fingers, pulled back into traffic, and crept back to the Command Center.

Same policeman. This time he let me in, though, which was a relief. After conferring with the site commander, he found a place for me to park, then took me to the command trailer and introduced me to the dispatchers. They had no amateur radio equipment in the trailer and no room for me to set up, but told me that if I could set up elsewhere on the site they would send a runner over if they had any messages for the Red Cross. I said that would work for me, and the police officer showed me where to sign in.

I did have an SUV full of gear, but rather than disgorging it all, I decided to just stay in my vehicle and use its mobile radio. The car was a much more comfortable and there didn't seem to be any advantage to sitting in the parking lot. I called in and told Mike that I had made it to the Command Center, had checked in, and was operational.

I asked if there was a net control station. Nope, apparently there wasn't. Things were being run informally. Oooooh, that made me very uncomfortable. But five minutes later Mike decided that we should have a directed net after all, and that since I was at the Command Center I should be net control.

That worked out well. John Ventura, KD0MJJ had been assigned to help me, so we had a two-man team working net control out of my Toyota. Tactical call signs were issued to the participating stations, which in addition to John and me, were the Red Cross Chapter Headquarters, the shelter where people whose homes had been damaged were staying, and a roving operator who was shadowing a Red Cross official. We operated for about an hour and then were released for the evening. Before we left, assignments for the next day were made.

I started feeling better about the deployment. There had been a lot of bumps in the beginning, but we'd started to get ourselves organized.

net control in a Toyota The following day went somewhat smoother. I drove to the Hazelwood Disaster Command Center and was greeted by the same policeman. He remembered me, showed me where to park, and made sure that I signed in. There were different dispatchers in the command trailer, so I introduced myself again.

I stayed most of the day. Charlie Troxell, KH2OP was with me some of the time, so I was able to take an occasional break. My ARES reflective vest must have made me look official, because various other volunteers kept offering me food and coffee. I kept telling them that I, too, was a volunteer, but they insisted on handing me bagels, pizza, and bottled water.

There were a lot of volunteers. It was fantastic to see so much community support.

There was not a lot for Charlie and me to do at the Command Center. We handled net control, but never had any messages to or from the command trailer itself. The only direct interaction I had with the Red Cross was when a survey team member asked if I had anything in my vehicle that could charge her smartphone.

I only worked those two days, which were a Thursday and a Friday. When the weekend rolled around the number of volunteers jumped dramatically, so I didn't feel that I would be needed. I stayed home and contemplated my first deployment.

I had greatly mixed feelings about it. In one sense it was very disorganized. Many Red Cross officials did not know who we were or why we were there. Some of the amateur radio volunteers had had no training emergency communications. I don't want to give you the impression that it was a disaster-within-a-disaster, though, because it wasn't. Everyone did their absolute best, using what skills and equipment they had. We overcame a lot of confusion and were able to provide communications services. I was actually surprised, and proud, at how well we did.

The event really did, however, point out the need for preparedness. We've have since had a number of talks with the Red Cross chapter about formalizing relations, and we continue to urge the local amateur radio operators themselves to get training. Progress is slow, but there is progress.

And what did I learn? Before deploying, ask for the best directions on how to get there. And I shouldn't bother to take any bagels of coffee with me. There will be plenty.

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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