Santa Cruz County ARES Mastered Social Distance With “SAFE”

Santa Cruz County ARES Mastered Social Distance With “SAFE”

Allison Hershey (KM6RMN) (986 words)

In the spring of 2020, EC John Gerhardt (N6QX) saw event after event postponed, then canceled as COVID-19 spread around California. Santa Cruz County’s ARES groups traditionally provided communications for Strawberry Fields Forever Bike Ride, Big Sur Marathon, Sea Otter Classic Cycling, Santa Cruz Triathlon, and many other events in the greater Monterey Bay area. The local ARES groups counted on these events to test equipment, practice their radio skills, and train up newer Ham licensees. 

The weeks turned into months, and all their usual opportunities for field training came to a halt.  What could they do now? John was motivated to find an alternative. With a bit of brainstorming and a few Zoom meetings he developed a plan: a kind of “scavenger hunt” that participants could pursue individually and remain COVID-safe in the isolation of their cars.

Once the plan was developed, they announced a date and start time on the weekly nets. The core team of John Gerhardt, Dan Selling (N6RJX), and Bob Fike (KO6XX), and a few helpers scouted locations around Santa Cruz County, noting unusual features or signs that could be discovered and logged by roving radio operators from their cars. Their addresses and unusual features were assembled in lists to be kept by net control operators. They canvassed a large area in the coastal and mountain areas of Santa Cruz County so that participants could explore places they were not accustomed to and test the coverage of several repeaters. 

They called it “SAFE” (Spring Assessment Field Exercise) and worked out four main goals: 

-Improve mobile radio communication and logging skills. 

-Increase confidence and proficiency when working alone. 

-Improve knowledge of county geography and repeater coverage. 

-Have fun and maintain interest in ARES while following all social distance guidelines.

Information was distributed to the local groups through email lists and posted on the Santa Cruz County ARES website, Interested parties were not required to sign-up, but they were required to read instructions and download forms by the morning of the exercise. Having no formal sign-up beforehand would simulate the unpredictability of a real disaster for the net control operators. 

On the day of the exercise, all participants were instructed to check in with the resource net on W6BECE repeater frequency at the appointed time.  Participants were acknowledged individually and assigned to one of two tactical nets on other nearby repeaters. Participants then changed over to their tactical net control operators to receive their first assignments. 

Instructions were basically the same for every assignment: to drive to a given address and report a specific observation about that address, usually visible from inside the car. Example assignments would be to count the EV chargers at a particular shopping center, note the color of an art installation, or read the title on the front of a building. The participants would periodically contact the tactical net with progress reports as they worked towards their goals. They would radio in when they arrived at the address, report their findings as assigned, then update their activity log.  Once they had completed a task, they were offered another assignment. Most participants completed three assignments before the exercise timed out. For a three-hour exercise, that averaged around an hour per assignment.

The last part of the exercise was to attend a Zoom meeting in the evening to review the day. Participants were instructed to complete their paperwork and return it to the team by whatever means they could—scanning, taking a photo, mailing, or dropping it off.

So, what were some of the take-aways?

On May 17, dozens of radio operators checked in at 0900. Initial processing was backed up for almost an hour. This was no accident. In a real emergency, net operators would likely be flooded with people calling in. Part of the drill was to have patience, use standard procedures to maximize organization, be assertive and brief, and find a way to sort everyone out.

All objectives and actions were documented by participants and net controls on ICS forms, such as ICS 202, ICS 205, and ICS 214. Learning how to use these forms was part of acclimating to the Incident Command protocol now used extensively in disaster management.

Participants were usually assigned locations that were away from their own neighborhoods. GPS devices were not forbidden, but paper maps were listed as part of the radio go-kit. Practice using them was encouraged. The terrain was full of ridges and canyons, and the average drive-and-find time was 20 to 30 minutes, even with GPS help.

There were three nets operating at a time. The main resource net had one net control operator. The two tactical nets each had a communicator and a logger. They all worked in their individual homes. The core team stayed in contact with each other through Zoom conferencing software and shared documentation in real time via Google Sheets. These tools worked surprisingly well as substitutes for the usual proximity of an operations center; but they did require a good internet connection and an extra bit of finesse when using ham equipment at the same time. 

The May 17 exercise was great fun and very instructive, so SAFE II was held on June 20th.  The acronym was reworked to stand for Scavenge Around Field Exercise. Not as elegant, but appropriate for all seasons. JoMarie Faulkerson (KM6URE) was chief organizer, and Karen Corscadden (KM6SV), Scott Green (KE6QZJ), Stephen Betita (KM6NEP) and John Gerhardt formed the core team. This, too, was a success. Other kinds of exercises were organized during the summer as well, but real emergencies–including the massive CZU wildfire– and COVID-19 related issues caused many of them to be canceled. 

Santa Cruz Area ARES members are ramping up for SAFE III, scheduled for January 10, 2021. John will be at the helm again.  A new crop of freshly licensed hams has come on board, so they are looking forward to a big turnout.

Published 1/1/21