CARE: the Santa Cruz County CERT/ARES Radio Exercise

CARE: the Santa Cruz County CERT/ARES Radio Exercise
By Allison Hershey (KM6RMN) 

Santa Cruz County has experienced quite a number of disasters over the
last few decades, and one of the effects has been the rise of a vibrant
disaster-preparedness community. There are a hodgepodge of organizations
ranging from animal rescue to education/networking groups, all loosely
affiliated with the county office of emergency services. They all work
hard at what they do but have somewhat independent goals. Slowly, they
have been learning to work together. Two organizations of note are local
CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams) and ARES groups (if you
don’t know what ARES stands for, get back to your handbooks!).

There was a fair amount of cross-pollination between the two groups:
CERT members were encouraged to study for their ham licenses and ARES
members urged to take CERT training.  Two such dual-citizens were Liz
Taylor-Selling (W6LTS) and Dan Selling (N6RJX), both active organizers.
Additionally, Liz lobbied to get CERT volunteers who were not inclined
to become hams trained up in radio communication with MURS radios, for
which licenses are not required. Dan was integral in securing radios and
providing training over the last couple of years.

As crops of CERT MURS radio operators mastered short-distance message
passing through instruction and drills, Liz came to realize there needed
to be integration with the existing nets forming on the ARES side of
things. The two could extend each other’s communication reach in a
disaster, but only if they learned to work together.

Liz and Dan discussed this with their peers. A plan slowly formed to
carry out a joint exercise. They got their fellow CERT and ARES group
leaders and higher-ups in the county involved, and by January 2021
started planning for the first CERT/ARES Radio Exercise (CARE). Santa
Cruz County DEC Robert Ritchey (KJ6FFP) was able to clear the way with
the Santa Cruz Office of Emergency Services. Roberta Joiner-Roberts
(AJ6KN), a member of both CERT and ARES, was given the task of
organizing the overall event, and Dawn Mackey (KM6RME), also a dual
citizen, became CERT liaison. CERT group leaders around the county were
encouraged to create their own response teams to go out and message back
to their communication centers. The date was set for April 17.

The basic idea of the exercise was to have local CERT teams create
scenarios and deploy within their groups, and then get two messages out
in a series of hand-offs through the ARES conduit.  CERT members would
communicate with each other using their limited MURS radios and the ARES
tactical network would act as a communications bridge to the county
Emergency Operation Center (EOC). All steps in the ARES structure were
to be carried out using ICS forms and practices.

There were eight CERT groups involved, each with one to three teams to
deploy in the field. Each CERT group headquarters had an ARES ham
operator on board who was tasked with receiving MURS messages from the
field and passing them on a simplex channel to their assigned ARES
communication post. The hams at each communication post were to copy
these messages and pass them on to their designated net (north county or
south county) on an assigned repeater frequency. Then the north and
south county net controls would relay the messages to central operations
at EOC.  

CERT organizers planned their scenarios beforehand, but for purposes of
the exercise they formed their action teams and gave instructions at the
time of deployment. The ARES plan was done a little bit differently,
with a Zoom meeting the night before to make assignments and review ICS

The plan was a bit complex, but part of the exercise was to find out how
well a branch structure would direct the flow of traffic. Would its
multiple tiers facilitate or hinder information flow?  Could it be
counted on to sort out the usual pileups when everyone wanted to get
their messages through?

On the day of the exercise, while CERT groups were organizing and
sending out their teams, ARES members checked in with John Gerhardt
(N6QX) and Roberta Joiner-Roberts on the CARE resource net and took
their places in the information relay tree. Many of the participants
sailed through the event without a hitch. Lisa Schallop (KN6IAB) said
her CERT team had a great time testing their MURS radios. And she got
her messages through. One team got its assignment done and signed off so
quickly the planners wondered if there was a mistake.

But being the first CERT/ARES exercise of this kind for the county,
things did not always go as planned. Some groups had difficulties with
reception on assigned frequencies. A few messages didn’t get through
to county EOC.  For south county net operators, there was a surprise
when the Watsonville Emergency Airlift Command Team joined in. They had
been invited earlier in the season to operate with their own simulated
activation but not quite integrated into the ARES communication
structure due to some planning delays. This resulted in a short period
of confusion but ended up being an excellent teaching moment about the
surprises that await even the best-planned action in a real emergency.

To paraphrase EC Bob Fike (KO6XX), a former police dispatcher, the
glitches that occurred were a positive sign of success.  He said the
point of initial exercises are to find the rough spots and learn how to
make things work better. Real events are always chaotic. That’s the
norm.  No matter how much people plan… “neat and organized is never
going to happen.”

There were many discussions following the CARE event. The takeaway was
that it was an ambitious exercise with many moving parts. All the
participants learned: strengths and limitations and of equipment,
transmitters, and propagation; how well a branch structure would work in
a situation with widespread traffic; dealing with surprises and
interruptions in flow; how to work cooperatively; and practice,
practice, practice. Several ideas were hatched from the shortcomings for
strengthening message ‘triage’ skills and may soon be added to ARES
weekly nets.

As Bob Fike put it, the point of any disaster exercise is to (1) achieve
effectiveness in the midst of chaos (2) get along with each other and
(3) learn how to play together in a disaster situation. In these, and
Bob’s earlier observations, CARE fulfilled its function.