The 2012 MNVOAD Training Conference: Lake County RACES/ARES®

This post was updated on 4/2/12 after Mr. Angelos kindly corrected me on several points.

Mr. Peter Angelos, KCØKRI

The 2012 MNVOAD Training Conference was well-worth attending! My favorite part, of course, was the presentation by Peter Angelos, KCØKRI, on the Lake County, MN RACES/ARES® response to the Pagami Creek Fire in September, 2011. His “keystone” speech was the first of the many sessions that day, and the only plenary session (the other 15 sessions were breakouts). While he focused upon RACES/ARES®, he also discussed principles that apply to any voluntary organization.

Here are my notes from Mr. Angelos’ presentation, in the order presented:

  • The Pagami Creek Fire
    • RACES/ARES® fills gaps in existing communication-systems, and reduces load on those systems.
    • A lightning strike on 8/18/11 13 miles east of Ely started a fire that ultimately caused $23M in response expenses in Lake County. On 9/12/11 this became the largest fire in Minnesota since 1918, with 92,682 acres and over 800 workers assigned through 10/17/11. Fires are an annual occurrence in Lake County, the home of the famed BWCA (Boundary Waters Canoe Area); what made this fire unusual was its size.
    • Cell phone coverage is the only phone service available in some parts of the area, and in some parts not even that. An 800 MHz public-safety trunked system using portable antennas was also set up to provide coverage.
    • Many hours of training and dedication go into RACES/ARES® in preparing for an event like this.
    • RACES/ARES® personnel stayed far behind the actual fire line.
    • The Lake County RACES/ARES® group is a “spring chicken,” having been organized in mid-2009.
    • On 9/12/11, RACES/ARES® was activated when the fire suddenly grew from 11,000 to 70,000 acres in only 24 hours due to winds gusting up to 35 mph. This drove the fire 16 miles in one day, toward a populated area. As evacuations increased, RACES/ARES® was activated. (In the Q & A that followed, one person asked how many messages were passed. Mr. Angelos said that only a handful of messages were actually passed. The activation of RACES/ARES® was a proactive attempt to prepare for a catastrophe in case this fire reached populated areas. When it became clear that this was not a threat, RACES/ARES® was deactivated.)
    • As the smoke plume blew as far as Milwaukee, WI and Minneapolis, MN, the potential for health & welfare inquiries increased.
    • A RACES/ARES® communicator was attached to the evacuation shelter manager. Hams were also located at the incident command post, staging area, evacuation checkpoints, and the EOC. The goal was to handle non-emergency traffic to take the load off police, fire, and rescue channels.
    • The log of messages kept by RACES/ARES® is helpful for post-event evaluation.
    • Lake co. RACES/ARES® portable tower, AMCV and MCT deployed at a Canadian National RR mock fuel spill exercise in Two Harbors MN on September 14, 2010. Photo by BJ KDØHHW. (http://n0lcr.org)

      The Lake County RACES/ARES® group uses two state-of-the-art vehicles, each outfitted with a PSN (Public Switched Network capable of establishing a cellphone network), as well as 2m/75cm FM/Packet and all HF modes including WinLink, WINMORE, Pactor, and other digital modes. One of these vehicles is a trailer of their own (the “MCT”), while the other is an RV (the “AMCV”) purchased by an 11 county consortium in the northeast Minnesota Arrowhead Region (with help from a grant). This vehicle can provide video conferencing and internet connection via satellite.
    • The repeater network available is huge, extending from Ely, MN to Solon Springs, WI.
    • RACES/ARES® deployed for a total of five days, suspending operations on 9/16/11 after contributing 633 man-hours. The Lake County RACES/ARES® group provided 445 of these hours, with the remainder provided by mutual aid from RACES/ARES® groups in four neighboring counties.
  • The Relationships Necessary for Success
    • The Lake County RACES/ARES® group would never have been invited to participate if it weren’t for the well-established relationships that had been built with Lake County Emergency Management and the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.
    • Professional conduct and standard ICS documentation-procedures are essential for establishing credibility with served agencies.
    • Served agencies expect to see stuff like this duty roster.
    • None of this could have happened without the “four C’s” (communication, coordination, collaboration, and cooperation), the hallmark of VOAD. They couldn’t invite themselves to drills — they had to participate in non-emergency events like local marathons and sled dog races to demonstrate their capability and build relationships. Only then did they get invited to their first drill.
    • Lake County RACES/ARES® volunteers are required to complete FEMA courses IS-100b, IS-200b and IS-700a.
    • These hams are volunteers with the Lake County Emergency Management Department. They are required to have security background checks, they all have photo ID’s issued by Lake County, and they are even insured by the county.
    • As a result of this relationship-building, the Lake County Emergency Manager got her amateur radio license (KDØHHW) and joined this RACES/ARES® group herself.
    • So much credibility has been established with served agencies that this RACES/ARES® group has been entrusted with the housing and maintenance of the AMCV.
    • Building these relationships is “complicated” but worth it. Their relationships are so good now, Mr. Angelos said, “We even have a Christmas pot-luck dinner together.”

Not only was this presentation of RACES/ARES® center-stage at the conference, but the Bloomington, MN Amateur Radio Association had a great display set up out in the vendor’s area, complete with a couple of Buddipoles and HF/VHF radios. Mr. Wayne Snyder, KCØZJB was kind enough to send me some photographs:

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If you get a chance to attend a VOAD conference like this, I heartily encourage you to do so. Not only did I learn from KCØKRI’s presentation, I also learned quite a bit from several other breakout sessions. It is clear that ARES® work is not conducted in a bubble. To be efficient and effective (much less to even be invited to participate) in an emergency we must develop relationships with the agencies we serve, from governmental entities to other voluntary organizations. The time to do that is not at the time of the emergency itself, but long before. Conferences like this one can be a great way to learn from each other.

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