Every year in mid October, Wisconsin ARES/RACES, the state’s amateur radio emergency communications group holds its annual conference. While open to anyone with an interest in Emergency Communications, the conference gives ARES leadership an opportunity to network and share information in a fun and educational setting.
This year’s conference, held on Saturday October 18, 2014 in Wisconsin Rapids was well attended, with 86 participants, including 25 first timers to the conference. After the obligatory welcome and awards presentation to ARES members for their outstanding service, the conference moved along at a fast clip. The meat of this year’s conference can be broken down into three sections. First was an update from WeComm, Ltd, then a keynote presentation, and finally an education and training exercise. The conference ended late in the afternoon with the handing out of several door prizes.
WeComm Network Update
WeComm, Ltd is a non-profit charitable organization formed to build and maintain a statewide network of amateur radio VHF repeaters. Bill Niemuth, KB9ENO, the president of WeComm, Ltd took us through an update of the WeComm network and its activity over the prior year. As the group nears its tenth year of operation, WeComm has successfully launched 9 repeaters with a tenth, and possibly final, site in the works. This year marked some big successes for the group as new repeaters in Plymouth and Dodgeville, WI came online, the repeater in Sayner linked to the network, and all repeaters in the system now part of a full-time linked network.
The WeComm network currently provides 95% coverage in the State of Wisconsin, but there exists a hole in central Wisconsin. A site planned near Coloma would bring the number of repeaters up to ten and complete the network. No firm date was given on when the Coloma site would be on the air.
One small cause of concern for WeComm is its continued funding. In 2014 the organization lost its primary grant funding. rollout of nine full-time linked repeater sites is a significant financial investment to the tune of $300,000. Currently it costs about $10,000 a year to run WeComm. This includes things like tower rent, power, and maintenance- but not the rollout of new systems. To help cover those costs WeComm is now taking direct monetary donations, donations via Amazon Smile, and employer funded and government grants. WeComm will also accept equipment donations, ham radio estate donations/sales, and bequests.
The goal of WeComm is to run a sustainable organization- but it takes money and talent. The leaders of the group say that it can and will be done, but support and dedication are needed. If you are interested in helping WeComm, Ltd out, please consult their website.
Training Exercise: RMS Express & ESponder
The majority of the afternoon session comprised of an education session on the Winlink application RMS express and a training exercise using the Wisconsin Esponder message and resource management portal. A table top exercise simulating shelter and EOC communications for a county ravaged by floodwaters was at the core of the scenario. Messaging via Winlink, which can operate via RF and Internet links worked well and using the tools of Esponder kept the participants briefed as operators cycled in and out over the simulated operational periods. Esponder, of course, does require a live Internet connection, but most EOCs would have that capability. Plus emergency managers would be using the same Esponder platform for their operations- so it makes sense for the amateurs providing auxiliary communications to be online with the same tools. The exercise was a great presentation of the power and flexibility of Esponder for amateur radio emergency communications operations.
Keynote Speaker: Stephen Buck, American Red Cross
For a lack of a better term, the conference’s keynote speaker was Stephen Buck, Disaster Co-Chair, American Red Cross of Southeastern Wisconsin. This was an interesting presentation. As a large multi-faceted organization, the American Red Cross has countless communications resources available to it. But the Red Cross is also volunteer driven, with 92-95% of the manpower the Red Cross relies on coming from volunteers. The organization is always in need of trained communicators, hence the reason why the American Red Cross and the ARRL signed a memorandum of understanding back in 2010 to pave the way for ARES groups to better interact with the Red Cross. The keynote gave the conference participants an inside look at how ARES members will work with the Red Cross in the event of a disaster.
According to Buck, the core of the Red Cross’s communications resources are provided via the Disaster Services Technology group. The DST functions to provide interoperable and interoperable communications in the event of a disaster. This is done through the use of multiple tools and services broken down into four components: radio communications, computers, networking, and customer service. A ARES member working with the Red Cross could be manning a radio at a shelter or command post, shadowing a Red Cross manager or even working with computers and internet technology to maintain communication lines.
In the Red Cross Disaster Services Technology group, an ARES member will play four roles in a disaster.
- Amateur Radio Liaison- An individual familiar with ARES and the American Red Cross structure would become a single point of contact between the organization and other amateur radio operators.
- Amateur Radio Equipment Operator – Stationary or mobile, in the field or at headquarters, hams would provide communications services on amateur radio and Red Cross assigned radio frequencies. There is a need for both short range VHF/UHF and long range HF radio operators. Hams could also be assigned to Red Cross outreach teams to funnel information back to the command post.
- Communications Equipment installer/repair – The Red Cross has vast communications resources available to it. Caches of equipment can be brought in for a wide scale disaster. Knowledgeable and resourceful individuals (ham radio operators) are needed to help distribute, install, and maintain this cache of equipment.
- Damage Assessment – Teams in the field are necessary to collect damage reports and provide situational awareness during a disaster. Hams are encouraged to take the Red Cross damage assessment courses so they can be a part of those teams.
Combining the forces of the American Red Cross and ARES is win-win situation. ARES can provide trained communications personnel that are committed to serve, have their own equipment, and are familiar with a rapid response environment. The Red Cross has resources, can provide purpose and direction, and often needs to start a response now. Working together, the two groups can leverage local resources to provide trained teams ready for in the event of a disaster.
To summarize, Buck recommends that ARES members interested in working with the Red Cross should strive to upgrade their role through:
- ARRL Emcoomm training
- ARES participation
- FEMA training (ICS series coursework)
- Red Cross Damage assessment training
- Red Cross DST training (DST-101 course)
- Red Cross disaster training
Working together, ARES and the Disaster Services Technology group of the American Red Cross can help bring order out of chaos through the use of radio communications, computer and internet connectivity to “best meet the needs of the survivors in the community.”
To close out the conference, which incidentally was also billed as an ARRL Convention, we watched the ARRL produced centennial video. If you haven’t seen this video yet, I recommend watching it. It’s an excellent history of the league and recounting of the League’s continuing efforts to further the art and science of amateur radio.
This year was the 16th annual conference, by my recollection, I’ve been to 14 of the 16 events (I missed the first and and fourth conference). But as always, I can’t wait for next year’s event.