Delco EC Sums Up Recent Lessons Learned

Recently District EC Bob Famiglio, K3RF, put a call out for a limited number of volunteers to assist with the Philadelphia Airport Emergency Preparedness Exercise. Delco EC Bob Wilson, W3BIG, took on the last-minute planning and coordination duties. With this event and the recent effort to get District operators from the five-county area participating together in training events, W3BIG sums up his lessons learned.

Your thoughts and comments are encouraged. His message follows...

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From: BobCanoe@aol.com [mailto:BobCanoe@aol.com]
Sent: Friday, November 14, 2008 9:53 AM
To: RBFamiglio@aol.com
Subject: Lessons Learned

From: Bob Wilson, W3BIG, DelCo EC

Subj: Lessons Learned

I would like to pass along a few crucial lessons I’ve learned from participating in drills and operating events within the district. Bob Famiglio, K3RF, has been instrumental in encouraging us to get involved in the operations of sister ARES / RACES units within our
district, and that has been quite rewarding. It's always helpful to watch how someone else tackles problems. And, working as part of a larger district team will be useful when we are called upon to provide mutual aid in a wide-scale emergency.

At the recent Philadelphia Airport Emergency Preparedness Exercise (airport disaster drill), I was able to use lessons I’ve learned in designing an effective communications plan for the event. The greatest challenge was maintaining communication with four patient buses traveling various routes from the simulated crash site at the airport to hospitals in Delaware County and the city of Philadelphia. Some of the hospitals were located in the northeastern and northwestern reaches of the city, center city as well as the western extremes of Delaware County.

Additional challenges came from being assigned operators from outside the ARES / RACES community to fill critical roles in the plan. This proved to be a valuable component of the exercise, since in a real disaster scenario we will be called on to manage personnel assets with whom we have no prior experience. That’s often the nature of volunteers. They have desire to help, but not necessarily relevant experience.

The first lesson I learned from observing other exercises was that my responsibility as EC was to design a plan, implement it and coordinate the operations. I was NOT responsible for making every transmission and managing every decision. Delegation is a critical aspect of leadership and I had faith in my team to execute their responsibilities. I learned from my service in the Navy that you have to give subordinates responsibility for them to learn to become responsible. It’s a simple concept, but it seems to be lost on too many leaders.

The second critical lesson I employed was one we all learned from our FEMA training. The ICS principle of span of control was quite useful. In the airport drill, we were tasked with coordinating transportation communications to route four patient buses to area hospitals. We had one radio operator aboard each of the four buses equipped with an HT. To maintain contact with each bus, we assigned one operator back at our communications base to each bus operator. This simplified communication and resulted in a cleaner and less confusing communication conduit.

One of the critical aspects of any exercise or real emergency scenario involves command and control. On one recent district event, I observed considerable confusion involving command and control communications. The incident commander (event coordinator) made some negative comments concerning amateur radio communications and I was determined to avoid falling into that trap. That negative image was due to too much happening at one time on too few channels.

At the airport drill, I designed a plan that eliminated any possibility that event managers would witness any confusion or problems we would encounter. The Incident Commander (airport operations manager) was coordinating the exercise from within the ramp control tower. I positioned one liaison with the Incident Commander and that operator would be the only point of contact between our communications team and the IC. This proved to be a critical decision that ensured not only our success, but in presenting an efficient and professional image.

Of course an important aspect of having one point of contact is choosing the right person for the critical role of liaison. I was fortunate to have Bob Famiglio, K3RF, available to fill this role and his experience and professionalism proved invaluable. Yes, part of leadership is recognizing and utilizing available personnel assets in the best possible manner.

The flow of communication was simple and direct. The IC made a request through our liaison, who then radioed the request via a simplex UHF frequency to our communications base at the Tinicum Fire Station located a few miles from the airport. The EC received the request and directed the appropriate operator to relay the message to his radio operator on the bus. We used a variety of VHF and UHF repeaters to do this based on the bus routes and their proximity to local repeaters. Because the airport manager only heard the crisp and efficient traffic between the liaison and the EC at the communications base, there was no confusion evident, nor was there any evidence in communication gaps. Of course, there was confusion and there were gaps, but that was only evident to the operators at our communications base. Our physical separation from the Incident Manager filtered out this aspect of communication and we presented only our best side to emergency management officials in the tower.

The point here is that as emergency management officials begin to recognize and utilize ARES/RACES into their plans and operations, we need to present the most professional image we can. There is no need for emergency managers to witness the nuts and bolts of our operations. They should only see the crisp, paramilitary operation of our liaison. I believe designing a communication plan that incorporates this concept will help to ensure this goal is achieved.

One of the aspects of the airport drill in which I had no control was the assignment of four volunteers from Holmesburg ARC. I had no knowledge of these operators and learned that they would only be equipped with HTs. Their equipment limitations proved to be a challenge, but we managed because we stressed the importance of having decent antennas to deploy. Some of these operators were quite creative in designing and deploying versatile antenna systems for use on aluminum buses.

The need to deploy operators on mobile assets with which we have no prior experience presents a unique set of challenges that we need to address. I have decided that my county needs to acquire and have available for deployment at least (3) portable/mobile VHF / UHF stations that can operate from a wide variety of platforms. They should utilize mobile dual-band transceivers with hefty batteries that can also be powered off a vehicles’s DC system. The radios should also be equipped with a dual-band antenna system that can be effectively mounted on a variety of surfaces, including nonmetallic. Having these systems available for deployment will address the challenges of assigning operators who don’t have the necessary gear. Of course, the radios will be preprogrammed with ARES frequencies and utilize alphanumeric tags to make channel coordination simple.

One aspect of the airport disaster drill that we didn't anticipate was the discovery of a personal, non-coordinated repeater system operating in the middle of the 440 simplex band. The repeater was disrupting communication on our command and control frequencies and presented some serious problems. This challenge addresses the importance of frequency agility in your communication planning. We were able to provide a fix for this problem by scrambling to find other frequencies to use, but never underestimate the potential for unanticipated complications. Mr. Murphy is alive and well.

I hope sharing these observations has been useful. I have learned much from operating with other ARES / RACES units in Chester, Bucks and Montgomery Counties and look forward to continuing to forge beneficial partnerships within the district.

Thanks,

Bob Wilson, W3BIG

ARES Emergency Coordinator - Delaware County
RACES Radio Officer - Delaware County
ARRL Official Emergency Station
Eastern Pennsylvania Section