By Michael A. Brown, Red Cross Public Affairs Volunteer, 7 July 2020

Imagine if you will that we have a flood in Central and South Texas and that the Red Cross could not reach government partners to find out where and how many shelters were needed.  Imagine that we could not order up the meals that we needed at the shelters that were set up. Imagine that people evacuated to the shelter could not contact loved ones elsewhere. Imagine the Coronavirus is still with us.

        Coronavirus or not, the Red Cross must be ready locally and nationally to respond to disasters, save lives, and help people through the challenges. Doing that requires top-flight communications among the Red Cross, first responders, emergency management command centers, people in emergency shelters, and the public at large. So what happens when the power, internet, and telephone communications go out? Amateur radio operators step up!

        In our region, 30 Red Cross volunteers are amateur radio operators who are also members of the Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES®) group. ARES® organizations in Texas serve several agencies, such as city and county emergency operations centers, hospital networks, the American Red Cross, the National Weather Service, and other disaster relief networks. Red Cross has a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with ARES® that defines each organization’s responsibilities.

        Last year in our region, and a few others, ARES® operators conducted an Emergency Communications drill in support of American Red Cross disaster operations. It was a success! So this year, the initiative expanded nationwide. The communications drill on 30 May 2020 attracted 176 Texas participants and 1,232 more nationwide.  

        John Roberts, the Radio Communications Lead for the Red Cross Central and South Texas Region, says there were two parts of the 30 May exercise. Part A was strictly local here in Texas, organized by local level managers within the Red Cross and ARES®, with the objective of creating and/or improving local cooperation and developing plans to carry that cooperation forward. Part B was a national exercise involving the passage of Red Cross forms with local and regional results to distant points, such as the Disaster Operations Coordination Center at National Red Cross.

        In the past, sending information from Red Cross forms was very difficult because the forms themselves cannot be transmitted over the radio. Their content had to be converted from written word to spoken word and then spelled aloud to assure accuracy. It took way too long. That is why Part B of this year’s test included electronic forms transmission over amateur radio via the Winlink system. This is important and valuable because it facilitates the movement of resources, including people and supplies to where they are needed.

        Here’s what the successful drill means to the rest of us Red Cross volunteers and to our communities:

  • 64% of the participating stations ran the drill on emergency power (batteries, solar, or generators) to prove they could do so. Even if a grid power outage is widespread, a majority of radio operators can still be on the air!
  • Some Red Cross chapters have on-site radio stations that are supported by local amateur radio clubs. Despite the difficulties and uncertainties, it will still be imperative to pass communications to and from Disaster Operations Centers (DOC), Multi-Agency Resource Centers, shelters, kitchens, Emergency Response Vehicles (ERVs), Regional HQ, etc., some by voice and many by using forms. Some of these are simple e-mail communication but others are official Red Cross forms that contain detailed information, reports, and requests such as number of meals needed, needed medications, family reunification, etc. In the drill, all worked well.
  • If communications and power have been widely affected, ARES® radio operators will be required at Emergency Operations Centers (EOC), hospitals, shelters, etc. For the most part, these venues will have pre-positioned radios and antennas. Temporary disaster relief sites will require ARES® operators AND their portable equipment. They are ready!

        The national aspect of this year’s drill helped assure continuity between and among the 36 states, plus Puerto Rico, that participated in the 20 May exercise. “Getting everyone on the same page,” as John Roberts put it, “demonstrates that the ability to communicate, serve, and recover continues despite the technical and logistical challenges.” Congratulations and thanks to everyone who helped plan, conduct, and share the good results from the 2020 Communications Drill!

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