Special by Shelby Ennis W8WN
The Hardin Co. (KY) ARES attempted to assist the Hardin/LaRue American Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT) in December 2015 during a search on the Rolling Fork River in southeastern LaRue County near Howardstown. The area is rural, sparsely-settled, rugged – and communications were nearly impossible.
The van currently used by the area Red Cross has an old GE Mastr II low-VHF unit on the national Red Cross frequency. A Kenwood TK-7102 high-VHF rig had recently been temporarily mounted to allow monitoring of the Hardin County fire frequencies. Two of its available channels were programmed with the two HC ARES repeaters as about half of the Red Cross Disaster Action Team are also ARES members.
On December 16, the DAT was requested to provide rehab/canteen service (food and refreshments) for a search. The Command Post was on the bank of the Rolling Fork River on Wayne Ennis road – and there were no communications from there. No cell phones had a signal, LaRue Co. Dispatch could barely be heard, and there were no nearby Amateur repeaters. W8WN carries a tiny 20-watt amp in his Red Cross DAT bag, so this was hooked to his HT and to a telescoping 5/8-wave antenna on a homemade magnetic mount on top of the van. It was just possible to hit the Magnolia repeater, but the signal was not strong enough to be usable. KK5UUI, who lives in that general area, then parked his mobile rig in Howardstown but couldn’t listen on the repeater input. W8WN switched to Reverse, and KK5UUI was able to relay updates back to the Hardin/LaRue Red Cross Office via the Elizabethtown HC ARES repeater. The operation was inefficient, but it worked.
The next day, December 17, the CP was moved about two miles closer to the main road, which was higher in elevation. Cell service was minimally available through one provider only. W8WN also took his personal vehicle and was able to weakly access the HC ARES repeater. AI4RG and WD8LPN could then phone the Red Cross Office for updates. KK4UUJ (now N9JFH), a former Boy Scout leader, was one of the DAT/ARES responders. He and one of the searchers kindled a small fire beside the road. The search continued until after dark, and the warmth of the fire was greatly appreciated by the searchers. Janet, KK4UUH, in the second Red Cross vehicle, arrived as one of the relief DAT members that afternoon. Conditions had changed, though, and the Red Cross van’s radio could not hit the repeater.
December 18, KK4UUH, one of the DAT members who is also an ARES communicator, was again one of the DAT/ARES operators at the search. Once more the Kenwood 7102 in the ARC van could not quite make the ARES repeater. The 47 MHz Red Cross radio was tried. The van team could hear the Office, but the old unit at the ARC Office could hear nothing. Again, KK5UUI took his mobile to the CP and was able to provide comms. (Not much was required. But several updates each day were needed to check on obtaining and feeding lunch and supper, the remaining refreshments, relief personnel, etc).
The next day of searching was December 20. KK4UUH once again was at the CP. And again KK5UUI had to go to the scene to provide communications. The Red Cross van’s quarter-wave antenna is higher than the rear deck-mount antennas of KK5UUI, and the power output of the two radios is the same. But conditions were usually marginal, or worse, and the ARC van could not be moved to a nearby location that would enhance the signal back to the repeater. These are the only differences that could be seen in the two rigs.
It was close to Christmas, the water on the Rolling Fork River was too high, divers had carefully searched a couple of areas where search dogs had hits, and more rain was coming in. The subject had now been missing a week, so the search was terminated until after the holidays. The Red Cross Disaster Action Team canteen/rehab service had provided food and refreshments for 30-50 searchers for four days, and the Hardin Co. ARES, many of whom are also DAT members, had managed to provide communications in spite of the seemingly impossible terrain.
On January 7, one more search was attempted. The CP was moved again, about ½ mile down highway 84, where the Hardin County Emergency Management’s Mobile Command Post (a Greyhound Silver Eagle bus) could be parked. This was the first time out for the newly-acquired Mobile Command Post, and it does not yet have Amateur Radio equipment installed. It was acquired last year from Jefferson County when they upgraded their MCP. The Red Cross van had to be parked where a building blocked it’s transmissions to the ARES repeater, but W8WN’s nearby vehicle was able to access the repeater – for a while. Then propagation changed, requiring W8WN, KK4UUI, and KM4PAA to set up W8WN’s 20’ telescoping mast and J-pole. This worked well for the rest of the day.
Unfortunately, the subject of the search was not located. This was not the first time the Red Cross had been called to this area, and undoubtedly it will not be the last. The Red Cross normally does not need much communication for its canteen service; but for all-day events, some is required. Cell phones normally are adequate, but there are places in the 5-county served area where cell coverage is minimal to non-existent. There is no one to communicate with on the low-VHF Red Cross frequency, so these are some of the reasons the ARES has been asked to assist at those times.
Since we will be out again in similar – or more difficult – situations, what else could we have done? What might have worked better but not have required a huge amount of work? This was discussed by those involved and by those who could only monitor. Here are a few of the ideas and conclusions, not in any order:
1. Relaying works. The first day was inefficient. After that, much better. Lots of continual practice is needed.
2. HF NVIS looked possible but was not tried. (W8WN has HF mobile capability). WinLink would not have been efficient for this, though.
3. We have a portable VHF/UHF unit, and also a number of private rigs are capable of cross-band repeater operation. We also have a tower trailer. However, the portable unit cannot be properly secured; the battery with the portable unit could run for only a short time since full power would have been needed; and finding a usable location for a cross-band repeater would be difficult or worse near the Rolling Fork search area. Perhaps this is the simplest answer if a secure location and power could be located (or a mobile could have parked there all day each time).
4. Relaying works. But practice (voice, digital, written, tactical) is needed.
5. If we had handled much traffic, digital would have been needed. Because of requiring a laptop and one of our personal rigs, but not needing to transmit lengthy messages, it was not worth the effort for this operation. But for the Next One?
6. Everyone needs to know how to quickly switch to Reverse and operate simplex on a repeater output frequency. Also to have all local repeaters already programmed into rigs’ memories.
7. We need more stations with beams. When no repeater is in range, try simplex. (And, of course, SSB, CW, and some digital modes sent via SSB do much better than FM).
8. We need more active stations who know how to operate – more than just one in all of LaRue County.
9. Being able to elevate an antenna (dual-band homemade J-pole) helped considerably.
10. Relaying works. But constant, regular practice (voice, digital, written, tactical) is needed! Did I mention this previously?
A number of other ideas were discussed, but these were the main ones.
Operators involved – KK4UUJ (now N9JFH), KK4UUH, KK5UUI (correct call), WD8LPN, AI4RG, KM4PAA, AI4VF, W8WN. Repeater used, WX4HC, Hardin Co KY ARES, 145.350.