“When All Else Fails … Amateur Radio Works”
As severe thunderstorms gathered in Concho County to the Northwest of the Highland Lakes, the National Weather Service issued warnings for McCulloch County. Hams in McCulloch County were activated at the McCulloch County EOC and their weather spotters were dispatched. Thunderstorm watches soon ensued for Llano and Burnet counties which resulted in activation of the Burnet County Emergency Operations Center (EOC).
The rapidly developing storm soon resulted in members of the Highland Lakes Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES®) — which serves principally Burnet and Llano Counties — being activated to man pre-prepared facilities at the Burnet County Sheriff’s Department, Seton Hospital in Burnet, the Marble Falls Volunteer Fire Department, in the Marble Falls Area EMS Command vehicle and the Llano Memorial Hospital in Llano, Texas. SKYWARN® weather spotters, in both fixed locations and mobile in all three counties, kept their eyes peeled to the sky for what seemed to be inevitable from this massive storm: a tornado in the Highland Lakes area.
Weather warnings came from McCulloch County ARES as the storm gathered strength. Skywarn and radar monitors there transmitted numerous condition reports and advance warnings into Llano and Burnet counties. Preparedness levels in the Highland Lakes were elevated in plenty of time, due to the advance information, to allow the hams to be ready to assist their served agencies if needed.
Crackling voice messages over high frequency radio circuits, warnings transmitted over the smoother sounds of VHF repeater systems, and emails gliding in bits and bytes over radio waves without need for the internet carried the news of high winds, flooded streets in Brady from torrential downpours and finally a tornado on the ground in Llano resulting in injuries. Another tornado in Burnet County destroyed the ham repeater on Park Road 4 causing the ARES operation to shift to a pre-determined backup repeater located East of Marble Falls and communications continued to flow. As commercial and public agency communications succumbed to the weather or were overloaded, Burnet EOC asked Marble Falls VFD to active all volunteers, using hams on their redundant repeater system to relay the message. Llano Memorial obtained assistance for their patient overload from Seton, communicating via the hams due to outages in commercial communications. The Marble Falls EMS repeater was damaged and the EMS Incident Command utilized ARES to advise Seton of incoming casualties.
Fortunately this was merely a communications exercise, but it could easily have been real.
“This is a drill, this is a drill” preceded and closed each message as the equipment, personnel and procedures of Highland Lakes ARES were exercised on Saturday, October 9, 2010. Many things were learned that will aid in further improving the ability of local amateur radio “hams” to backup or supplement public service agencies when normal communications systems are disrupted or overloaded. The Burnet County EOC where Jim Barho is the County’s Emergency Coordinator (and a ham himself) has recently been upgraded with new radios including the ham radios used in this exercise, and was the hub of the activity that encompassed the three counties.
The Simulated Emergency Test is an annual event of the ARES portion of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL, the national association for Amateur Radio™). The Highland Lakes ARES unit is comprised principally of members of the Highland Lakes Amateur Radio Club. It and the McCulloch County ARES are both in District 8 within the South Texas section of the ARRL’s ARES organization.
Participating this year in the local drill were Rik Chapman who is the ARES District 8 Emergency Coordinator (DEC), Gil Jones (EC for Highland Lakes ARES, at the Burnet County Sheriff’s Office), Riley Carruthers (Digital Operations EC for Highland Lakes ARES), Jim Barho (Burnet County EC, at the EOC along with City of Burnet Fire Chief Mark Ingram), Angie Sierra (Assistant EC — AEC for short — Seton Hospital), Chuck Dear (AEC — Marble Falls VFD), Robyn Richter (AEC — Marble Falls EMS), Rick Miller (AEC — Llano Memorial Hospital), Malcolm Robertson (AEC — Horseshoe Bay) as a mobile Skywarn observer with Lee Thying as a fixed location Skywarn, Sanford Musgrove (AEC — Kingsland, at Llano Memorial), Brooks Blake (at the VFD), Jim McCrocklin (at Burnet County SO) and Claudia Tuckness (at Llano Memorial). In McCulloch County their ARES and Heart Of Texas Ham Operators Group included Rick Melcer (EC — at their EOC), Frank Gendusa (at EOC), Marilyn Gendusa (at EOC), Danny Hinman (AEC — simulated mobile), Clayton Moore (AEC — simulated radar monitor), Ed Williams (HF Liaison), Robert Duus (simulated mobile), and David Huie (simulated mobile).
Hams have access to a large portion of the frequency spectrum and in addition to the well-known voice and morse code communication methods, they utilize state of the art digital methods to send email and instant messages purely by radios without use of the internet. From the EOC hams can communicate around surrounding counties, around the state (and the entire world), and directly into the State EOC even if the public agency facilities are compromised such as by a tornado strike.