All of Ohio ARES operators were involved in very large events. Here’s the story!
What would you call a net that lasted five days, and didn’t pass a single piece of traffic?
I’d call it a resounding success!
The headline doesn’t begin to tell the story of one July week in Ohio amateur radio! We start the weekend with a ‘small’ party in Toledo- where 100,000 gathered to watch the Toledo Air Show. We add in a cross-state bicycle ride. The same weekend launches the NAACP national convention in Cincinnati, complete with POTUS and presidential candidates. On the north coast, Cleveland begins an epic event: the Republican National Convention, complete with over 4,000 police, a full-blown Red Cross shelter operation in nearby Akron and a fully-activated Ohio Emergency Operation Center-Joint Dispatch Facility in Columbus. Amateur radio was on the bench with the national security “A Team” and ready to play!
The “Playing Fields”
Toledo - Amateur operators set up multiple MESH-based cameras for command personnel to watch entry gates and keep track of visitor security. Lucas County EC Brenda Krukowski, KB8IUP, attended planning meetings months ahead of the show and helped display what amateur radio technology could do for the event. The organizers were extremely impressed with the professionalism and expertise of all the amateur radio personnel they interacted with. The Hospital Branch Director commented the “ARES people were incredibly organized”.
Cincinnati – After meeting for several months, the “Regional Operations Center” (ROC) opened to include a staff of amateur radio operators in the existing station. Using DMR radios, the operators kept in touch with neighboring agencies and the Ohio EOC-JDF. The station was staffed over 300 hours during the event. Continuous information sharing took place and “stand by” nets were in operation. Hamilton County EC Bryan Hoffman, KC8EGV, suggests the importance of having a wider “management group” involved in the planning so AEC’s could be kept engaged during the planning process. He also suggests an incident binder be kept to build agency requests and make followup easier.
Anson Turley, Cincinnati Assistant Fire Chief and Emergency Manager wrote:
- “During the week our City of Cincinnati/Hamilton County EOC was activated for a minimum of 18 hours each day to share information and resources amongst all partners. Throughout the event, Hamilton County ARES volunteers, led by Emergency Coordinator Bryan Goffman, were on hand to provide communications assistance amongst all partners at the local and state level.
- With the high-profile and very large RNC event also in our state, it is gratifying to know that Ohio ARES was able to provide our community with valuable assistance in support of our local event.”
An additional event required even more ARES members to help the Thursday morning sendoff of a cross-state bicycle ride that originated in Cincinnati.
Cleveland - For an event on the National Special Security Event list, one doesn’t just show up at the door with a ham license. Nearly a year in advance District EC Eric Jessen, N8AUC, and Cuyahoga County EC Matt Nickoson, KC8NZJ, began meeting with county, state, and federal HS/EMA officials as they made plans for the event itself. Amateur radio was accepted because a good relationship existed with agency leaders. ARES credibility was achieved because the Ohio Section specified that ARES volunteers intending to work either in an EOC or on an emergency scene must have the four basic FEMA courses: 100, 200, 700 and 800. It was determined that further credentials would be required for those working in the Cuyahoga County EOC: IS-701, IS-706 and IS-802. Ohio ARES made sure all who were scheduled had those certifications.
With only days to go before the event’s startup, it was determined the EOC’s hours of operation (0800-2400) would be expanded to 24 hours throughout the event. That and some other planning changes along the way impressed everyone with the need to stay flexible! It also added to the need for ARES volunteers to staff positions.
Along with the rest of the EOC staff, ARES operators watched intently as the convention played out. A thank you letter from Walter Topp, Administrator of the HS/EOC read in part,
- “As the first National Special Security Event (NSSE) ever conducted in Ohio, the 2016 RNC was a new experience for all members of the Greater Cleveland public safety community. Throughout the planning phase and during the actual event, ARES members distinguished themselves by their thoroughness, professionalism and their unrelenting dedication.
- As a coordinating agency, the Cuyahoga County Office of Emergency Management relies completely upon the expertise and assistance of the many public safety and emergency management agencies throughout the region. The Cuyahoga County Amateur Radio Emergency Service has demonstrated time and again an overarching commitment to public safety and public service.”
Akron – The American Red Cross became another RNC focal point for Ohio ARES. Red Cross was tasked with actually setting up one shelter, and having a number available on two-hour call should they be needed. It was apparent that federal planners were leaving ~nothing~ to chance. Summit County EC Ken Dorsey, KA8OAD and District EC Dennis Conklin, AI8P, set about establishing amateur radio communication at the Akron operations center, while Nickoson in Cleveland dispatched others to set up stations in the Cleveland Red Cross building, just outside the convention center “safe zone”. Working with Red Cross officials to help set up the operation, and keep communications open, Dorsey’s crew received the following accolades from Jim Sage, Disaster Field Ops Manager:
- “I am impressed and excited to work with Matt and Ken. They have, so far, demonstrated the best organization and willingness to work with Red Cross that I have seen in the past 20 years of disaster work. Looking forward to an exciting venture.”
- In January, the Ohio Department of Public Safety introduced a credentialing database designed to produce ID cards for mobile devices to be used after a disaster or emergency. ARES became the first organization to actually use this system, issuing ID’s for amateurs to gain entry at the Red Cross operations location in Akron. The system allows the SM and SEC to enter names and details of ARES volunteers who have been vetted by their county EC. An ID is then emailed to each volunteer. It was an accomplishment to help get this system up and running.
Columbus – There’s a problem when an event happens and your amateur station is completely dismantled! That was the case at the Ohio Emergency Operations Center – Joint Dispatch Center. Remodeling work to provide a newer station location at the EOC stopped for the events. Ohio SEC Stan Broadway, N8BHL, brought his communications trailer “Canned Ham” to the EOC-JDF so members of the RACES station W8SGT (“The Sarge”) could operate. Ohio EMA provided a satellite uplink trailer and mobile hot spots to allow logins to the statewide WebEOC management software and use of Echolink. Operation was in tandem with the state EOC-JDF’s hours 0800 – 2400 with members on call out of hours.
The “Winning Plays”
This is the purpose for the entire operation: establish a “standing backup” to be held as a reserve system should any of the main systems of communication fail. That’s why a “no traffic” net is a success– the accomplishment is not in sending messages, but in first becoming recognized and accepted by the key agencies, all the way to Secret Service, as worthy players on the team. We achieved success through planning, people, and execution.
Planning and preparation – Many iterations of IS-205 forms and others were prepared well in advance of the events. Regular phone calls, emails, and other conversations kept ARES team members up to speed. We are the ~communications~ group, we need first to communication with each other!
People – Most EC’s can relate to this: it’s sometimes quite a task to secure enough volunteers to complete an event. There are numerous valid commitments holding back volunteer time. These events brought the need to issue a statewide call for qualified volunteers! Several messages were dispatched to all county EC’s for distribution. Cleveland and Akron both set up web pages to register and vet volunteers from all over the state. The electronic pages were helpful to establish both active members and a large number of ARES members on standby at their homes in case events escalated and more were required. That “stand by” volunteer time is just as valuable as those in service! Many ARES volunteers drove across several counties to reach their assignments, some for several days.
Execution - In our planning, an HF net was purposely not considered. It would be impossible to hold a frequency over several days when no traffic was expected! Instead we opted to plan for VHF/UHF links and other connections that we could occupy for long durations. After all, it was not a communications emergency- all facilities were up and running.
First was an RF path independent of the Internet and phones reaching Northeast Ohio: The 444.100 repeater in Mt. Vernon (about 30 miles from Columbus) offered a standing RF link with repeaters reaching through Akron into Cleveland. Thus, the Cuyahoga station, the Cleveland Red Cross, Medina County EOC, Akron/Summit County and Columbus could all talk together. The weakest link proved to be the portable yagi used at the Ohio EOC-JDF. It was possible to reach the repeater by replacing coax with a Heliax run but the connection was not clear enough for fldigi/digital messages. Hourly roll calls were taken by Cuyahoga County throughout the event.
Our second path from Columbus to Cleveland was to IRLP into the N8CUY repeater there. That worked very well, the audio was excellent and there’s no doubt we could send fldigi messages with ease.
The third path involved experimenting with Echolink to a repeater in Cleveland. That, too, worked well and would have easily passed messages. We mistakenly tried to use the internal microphone on a laptop- producing very low audio levels at the destination. Regular users suggested an outboard microphone would fix that problem. Even with that issue, we were able to communicate from a laptop in our portable station to Cleveland.
Without any deficiency in the Internet, this type of connection with multiple locations might be good for wide-spread events such as flooding or winter storms in order to connect many stations into a large net.
Communication with Cincinnati proved to be an interesting experiment. There is a lot of DMR radio in Cincinnati, and we were graciously loaned a DMR at Columbus. We actually were able to clearly communicate not only with Cincinnati but a temporary setup in Cleveland on “The Ohio Channel”. This has great possibilities as long as a DMR repeater is in the target area. We tried and failed to send digital IS-213 messages using fldigi- a big concern. It was however fun to be able to key up across the state and hear good quality returns.
We were able to log in to WebEOC with the state to maintain our position in the communication section ESF-2. Interestingly, radio from the extensive Cleveland Police operation was available over the Internet, so we kept a constant monitor on safety forces.
The Home Runs
The heartbeat of ARES in the Ohio Section is to be a viable emergency communications resource for our agencies. Our certification and professionalism got us in the door, and a good working relationship kept us there.
Volunteers who get the job done - We are the face of amateur radio to our agencies. Our purpose is to help our agency succeed. So amateurs were seen not only setting up ARES stations, but helping to set up BDA and MARCS (Multi-Agency Radio Communications System) stations and antennas. Throughout the events in multiple locations, ARES volunteers were helping to explain MARCS radios to other personnel and carrying out other duties that gained recognition.
“You can do that?” - In Toledo, ARES showed off the use of MESH by setting cameras to observe areas of concern.
In Cuyahoga County, someone remarked that they tried to view numerous ODOT traffic cameras, but the agency had quoted a sum of money in five digits to accomplish that. Bob Mueller, K8MD, went home that night to put a Raspberry Pi together which grabbed the picture feeds from the Internet. He then arranged them in a multi-display website. As weather threatened, he added the National Weather Service radar feed. EOC officials were amazed, and the feed wound up on one of the “Big Walls” for the duration. They were very impressed with amateur radio’s ability to adapt and overcome!
In Akron, the ARES team met a challenge and put up an HF station and antenna in under two hours. At every morning briefing Red Cross staff showed their appreciation with a great “thank you” on the screen.
The Final Score
This “once-in-a-career” series of events provided the unusual opportunity for amateur radio and ARES to assume a “working” position with some very important safety agencies and win their respect and appreciation! Comments from other agencies frequently indicated interest in having ARES assume a position in their plans and drills. In fact, the four major district HQ’s of Cincinnati Fire have installed amateur antennas to provide for ARES communications. ARES managers passed with flying colors the task of completing planning steps to prepare for this truly major operation. The events brought us closer together across our Ohio Section and it put amateur radio right in front of our respective agencies. Our “quiet, standing reserve” week was a very rousing success!