Info provided by Keith AJ4KI
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to participate in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport’s triennial disaster drill. The Queen City Emergency Net (QCEN) organized amateur radio operations in support of the Cincinnati Regional Red Cross Medical Assistance Team. Amateur Radio’s mission was two-fold. 1) Provide on-scene communications technical support and backup. 2) Provide technical support and backup communications for the Red Cross at the regional hospitals participating in the exercise.
This was a large and realistic exercise. 13 hospitals, over 80 fire and EMS departments, and dozens of “victims” were involved. The scenario was that an Airbus jet with 150 souls aboard had missed its approach and accidentally attempted to land on a closed runway. It struck construction equipment at the end of the runway and crashed on landing. I was assigned to the on-scene support team and was made the communications support staff for the red triage group.
QCEN had established a 2m simplex frequency for on-site operations, and were using a set of linked repeaters on both 2m and 70cm for communications with the participating hospitals. Net control was established in the airport firehouse which has a 2m/70cm antenna pre-installed on it. The Red Cross MAT was using their own radios which were a mix of FRS radios and some “new” radios (still in the plastic wrap) that were thought to be FRS/GMRS as well. Our first challenge at the staging area was trying to make the new radios inter-operate with the FRS units. We quickly determined that we would not be able to make these work in the time allotted for preparation, so we decided to use the new radios for the command staff and team leads and used the FRS radios within the triage teams.
The drill began at 1000h. Our first operational problem came at the NCS location. The fire station’s klaxons made it very difficult for NCS to open the net. The on-site teams were bused out to the exercise location. CVG had actually closed the center runway and placed a training airframe at the end of runway 18C. The fire departments were already transporting victims to a makeshift triage area when we arrived. Our second operational problem was establishing contact with NCS on our simplex frequency. Even though we were only a few thousand feet away (across absolutely flat terrain), NCS was having trouble hearing us.
During the bulk of the exercise, I handled very little traffic. My mission was support, so I stayed out of the way and waited to be needed. The exercise Safety Officer grabbed me at one point, handed me a dead radio, and instructed me to “fix it”. I located a replacement radio and discovered that while the Logistics Section had supplied us with a large number of these “new” radios, none of them had batteries, and no batteries were on-scene. Thankfully I was able to scrounge a set and meet the Safety Officer’s needs. I did not monitor the linked repeaters, but I understand that a lot more traffic was passed on that part of the communications network.
The exercise was called off abruptly when a real aircraft declared a real emergency. We secured the area, and once given the “all clear”, were escorted back to the staging area.
Some personal lessons learned:
I need to rethink my “go-kit”. A nice hiking day pack would have worked better than the bag I had. I was also wearing a tactical vest and actually managed to run out of pockets!
I need to add FRS radios to my kit. These things are everywhere and anyone can use them. I was surprised at how reliant the MAT team was on them.
I need to be carrying AA batteries. I had spare Li-Ion battery packs for my radios, but had to scrounge to meet the needs of my served agency.
I needed to be carrying a couple bottles of water.
I received many compliments from the professional responders on the ugly neon yellow reflective “RADIO COMMUNICATIONS” vest I was wearing. The professionals emphasized that wearing a vest like that is extremely important on a disaster scene. I keep mine in my go-bag.
Some larger issues for consideration. Some of these are second-hand since I did not monitor the repeater side of the operation. Hopefully some of the KY-7 ARES guys who participated can elaborate on these points:
NCS station needs to be in a quieter area. We thought that the fire station made sense since it was going to be empty during the exercise and had an antenna pre-installed, but the klaxons are really loud and sound for a long time.
Metal buildings are absolutely RF impenetrable by an operator on a HT.
Linked repeater systems take time to key up. You have to key the mike and pause before speaking or part of the message is lost.
HTs work well enough for tactical on-scene communications, but “fixed” stations, even when using repeaters for coverage, really need better radios and better antennas.
Be familiar with ICS and NIMS terminology. The on-scene operations were organized strictly along ICS lines. Being familiar with the terminology raises our stature in the eyes of the served agency.
Editorial: My host repeatedly apologized for my assignment not having much “ham radio content”. From my perspective, however, EMCOMM isn’t about using the 2m HT I had strapped to my hip. EMCOMM is about facilitating correct and efficient communications. In this scenario, the served agency clearly detailed the amateur radio mission as primarily technical support. Our frequencies and radios were a failsafe and a secondary communications channel. Since most served agencies have their own radio systems, I see this is a common request from an agency to the ham radio community. If we, as the amateur radio community, approach our served agencies with the attitude “I’m here to use my radio, or I’m going home”, we’re not going to get much traction. We need to be flexible and present ourselves as professional communicators. Above all, we need to remember that it is the mission, and not the mode, nor the frequency that is important.
Some links to media coverage:
In closing, I would like to thank the Queen City Emergency Net and Steve Lewis, N8TFD, for allowing me to participate in the exercise.