Practicing for Outages With Emergency Radio

Santa Cruz County ARES rehearses for 911 information relay points in case of Public Safety Power Shutoffs and other disasters
By Allison Hershey (KM6RMN), PIC, Santa Cruz County ARES

People in the South San Francisco Bay area were caught by surprise when communications failed after a short time during early Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS). Many were without cell phone service and sometimes even landlines within hours. In those early days of what would become a regular weather-related event, there was a realization that people in emergencies needed an alternate way to reach 911 services. What better than to bridge the gap with ham radio communications?

In consultation with county emergency services, the ever-creative members of Santa Cruz County ARES were able to come up with a plan for deployment to key communication posts around the county. They also created a training exercise to help prepare volunteers for the task, and an emergency report form that would guide message handlers to obtain important informational points from reporting parties.

According to Santa Cruz County DEC John Gerhardt (N6QX), the unique thing about the idea was that, rather than being presented as a Zoom or PowerPoint presentation, it would be a hands-on role-playing exercise to teach radio operators, through practice, how to behave in high pressure situations.

The key objectives of the exercises were to train volunteers from the Santa Cruz ARES community to effectively establish communications posts, take information from reporting parties (RPs) and relay it through a net control operator to the Santa Cruz Regional 911 dispatch service, otherwise known as NetCom. Once trained, they would be listed as deployable resources for the next PSPS or other event where regular lines of communication are threatened.

This exercise was designated “Practicing for Outages With Emergency Radio” (POWER). The first exercise took place in July 2020. Despite the extra burden of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, the masked exercise organizers, actors, and trainees successfully completed POWER 1.0 at the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department parking lot.

Because of the urgency of approaching weather conditions, POWER 2.0 was immediately scheduled to continue the training. However, venues were rescheduled several times at the last minute due to Covid-19 issues, then the CZU fire struck and afterwards a real PSPS deployment was called. Ultimately, the fully planned second training event did not happen in 2020. In the spring of 2021, the committee that put together POWER 2.0 decided to try again on August 1st, before California’s traditional heat waves in late summer and fall triggered more PSPS events. As last year’s POWER 2.0 had reached the class instruction stage before being set aside, they decided to designate this year’s training as POWER 2.5.

For trainees, the purpose of the exercise was to rehearse quick deployment to an assigned communication station location, take reports from people seeking 911 help, and properly document and call in the information to net control, who would relay that information to NetCom. Putting this all together required a lot of planning: finding a venue, structuring the event, and assembling instructional and reporting materials. The committee also recruited support personnel, monitors, and actors through the Santa Cruz County CERT and ARES communities.

In the first go-round in 2020, John Gerhardt (N6QX) and Karen Corscadden (KM6SV), and several others formed a committee to create the POWER 1.0 exercise. They obtained site permission from Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department via the Santa Cruz Office of Emergency Services (now Santa Cruz County Office of Response, Recovery & Resiliency or OR3). Karen created an emergency report form in consultation with former Santa Cruz County DEC Robert Ritchey (KJ6FFP) and NetCom. It was specifically designed to collect information in the order and type needed by 911 operators.

Both John and Karen were also instructors in the pre-exercise Zoom classes. Liz Taylor Selling (W6LTS) recruited and organized around two dozen actors from the emergency preparedness community to be the reporting parties for both exercises.

Cal Fire Captain Scott Green (KE6QZJ) wrote scenarios for the actors. They were based on his own dispatch experiences at NetCom and Cal Fire. These scenarios were used in POWER 1.0 and 2.5. Actors were given brief descriptions of situations ranging from life-threatening to trivial, along with brief acting instructions such as “be insistent” or “act shell-shocked,” or “you are timid and not forthcoming.”

JoMarie Faulkerson (KM6URE) headed the committee for POWER 2.0 and 2.5. She organized staffing, scheduling, trainee signups, and post exercise analysis.

The committee came up with an official list of trainee objectives for the POWER exercises, as follows:

Prepare an appropriate go-kit for quick deployment.

Establish a communications post and deal with the public during the epidemic.

Handle radio coverage challenges in areas likely to be affected.

Deal with possible repeater outages.

Practice turning a public report into a tactical message.

Prioritize multiple emergencies. (Essentially: life, then property, then environment.)

Keep an accurate log.

Additional lessons were learned along the way. They included becoming familiar with the required documents, learning what order to collect and transmit information, effective interaction with RPs in a courteous yet firm fashion, implementing extra Covid-19 precautions, and adapting to changing conditions.

Fifteen trainees registered for POWER 2.5 online via Signup Genius. At sign-up, they selected a time slot for their individual half-hour stints. PDF preparation materials such as Go-kit recommendations, instructions, and ICS 202, 205, 214, and emergency report forms were made available. Many attended an optional Zoom classroom session a week prior to the exercise.

On the day of the exercise, trainees were instructed to show up 10 minutes before their shift wearing approved attire, with their go-kit, FCC license, programmed radio(s) and DSW badge in hand. Gary Watson (K6PDL) and JoMarie Faulkerson checked them in and assigned their setup locations. Bob Fike (KO6XX) and Kathi Fike (KE6VTY) looked over their go-kits and made suggestions for improvements or additions. Then trainees went on to their locations and had 10 minutes to set up a communication post and have their forms ready before the first reporting party (RP) appeared with a 911 request. They received several RPs in the space of 30 minutes, some arriving simultaneously so that the radio operator had to prioritize urgency. All this under the watchful eyes of a mentor/monitor who evaluated performance strengths and weaknesses, which they discussed with the trainee. Performance review included ability to set up a post, handle RPs, convey messages, and fill out the paperwork properly. Afterwards a trainee would break down the post to make way for the next set, and was free to sign out and go home.

Of the 15 people who signed up, 14 were able to attend the exercise. Three of them had done POWER 1.0 and repeated the exercise to improve their skills. Dan Selling (N6RJX), John Gerhardt, and Karen Corscadden were monitors. Dawn Mackey (KM6RME) was on hand as a back-up.

There was an additional training track for learning net control, whose job was to receive information from radio operators and relay it to NetCom. Three people signed up for this training, but two dropped out beforehand. Scott Green mentored net control Gary Green (W6GMG) for this part of the exercise. Roberta Joiner Roberts (AJ6KN) played the 911 operator at NetCom.

Overall, both POWER 1.0 in 2020 and POWER 2.5 in 2021 were successful, providing valuable lessons and practice for future deployment in a PSPS or disaster. Lessons learned in 2020 were applied in 2021, including adding time to the shifts and having extra go-kit evaluators on hand to speed up that process. They added the simultaneous reporting party scenarios in the second exercise to teach trainees how to prioritize messages. The emergency report form was updated to improve information gathering flow, and mentors’ evaluation forms now included commentary regarding trainees’ readiness for actual deployment.

POWER 2.5 highlighted a few opportunities for improvement. As far as the event was concerned, they had hoped to have more communication stations running, but late sign-up response from actor volunteers caused them to scale back the exercise. At the last minute there was an influx of RP volunteers, but not enough coms to keep them occupied. Another was the multiple net control operators who signed up had dropped down to one. After the exercise, several regular trainees expressed interest in trying net control in the next go-round. Karen said also that mentors were in the habit of waiting until the last RP had left before giving the trainee feedback, but she discovered that giving feedback after each RP was more productive and rendered immediate improvement.

Mentors mentioned several common radio operator mistakes during the exercise:

Using scratch paper to take down information with intention to fill in forms later. John Gerhardt said this was extra work, and defeated part of the purpose of the form that was meant to guide the operator through gathering information in the order Netcom could best use it.

Not keeping the interaction brief in order to get vital information to net control quickly. Roberta Joiner Roberts said the operators and net control should strive to keep communications short, concise and to the point.

Unnecessary chatter takes up time on the air and may cause stations to have to wait longer.

Taking all the information down before calling NetCom. It is important to get trucks rolling towards the emergency immediately, then call in again to supply further details.

Forgetting to use tactical call signs and using their own FCC call sign instead. Often in a deployment situation, it is more useful to go by incident-established locations or tactical units,once checked in, for easier identification by net control and other parties.

One of the most important lessons learned by the planners was that radio operators needed to get more familiar with the new emergency report form to be effective. Many found it hard to locate the proper section to fill out for a particular kind of emergency. It was clear that operators needed to get more practice to gain familiarity with it. To address that, several planners created instructional skits to enact at ARES Zoom meetings, along with illustrations where and when to complete needed form information as the skit progressed.

The first skit, a fire report, was performed at a recent meeting and was well received. More skits are in the works. Public Safety Power Shutoffs are around the corner, and time has become too short to schedule another practice in 2021. POWER 3.0 is slated for next spring or summer. This year’s exercise was fruitful, producing more than a dozen trained radio operators, improvement in deployment and net traffic coordination, accurate assessment of strengths and weaknesses of current planning, and proof that the experimental emergency report form developed during the past year was very useful.