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Amateur radio operators often participate in exercises and real-life events to provide critical communications in situations where disruptions may occur. One unique opportunity arose in 2022 when the National Tribal Emergency Management Council (NTEMC) invited amateur radio operators (hams) to participate in a national-level exercise. Planned and executed by the tribal nations, the Thunderbird and Whale Exercise in June 2022 gave hams across the country an opportunity to build their network and practice their skills for a future event that many experts say is inevitable – a large-scale earthquake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone.
The key takeaways from the June 2022 exercise are already helping to improve collaboration and communications throughout the region.
In the Thunderbird and Whale exercise, the incident commander and radio operators from the National Tribal Amateur Radio Association (NTARA) and Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES) were the first to respond to the NTEMC emergency operations center (EOC) in Woodinville, Washington. In addition, the incident commander and communications lead set up the initial equipment necessary to contact other radio operators throughout the region and, even more importantly, outside the region to coordinate the request for resources from outside the damaged and impacted areas. Ultimately, the co-presidents of NTARA established communications with their sister non-profit, the United States Volunteer Joint Services Command (USV-JSC), with radio operators as far away as Virginia, Florida, Washington, and Southern California.
This exercise introduced several new challenges for hams. First, NTEMC asked hams reporting to the EOC to bring everything they would need to set up a Communications Unit. There would be no pre-positioned radio equipment, antennas, or generators as exercise participants would set up the EOC in a local church. Second, the exercise took place during the work week, limiting the availability of qualified and experienced team members to fulfill critical roles. Local support from Snohomish County’s Department of Emergency Management also was limited. Enlisting the help of volunteers was crucial in ensuring that the mission of the communications team was successful.
The equipment used during the exercise was in a “go kit.” These go kits are powered utilizing commercial power (120 volts), battery power, or solar power (12 volts). Operators used battery power during the exercise as a proof of concept for the tribal partners new to amateur radio. However, the go kit concept is not new. Hams worldwide use this type of kit to allow both ease of transport for radio equipment and some degree of environmental protection – for example, some kits are built in air-tight and waterproof cases. The go kit for the June exercise (see Figure 1) included: a Yaesu FT-991 (HF/VHF/UHF) radio and HF dipole tuner (bottom row); storage for a laptop and Kenwood VHF/UHF radio for digital (middle row); and power supply and lighting (top row).
Fig. 1. “Go kit” used in the June 2022 Exercise.
Despite the amount of communications equipment frequently seen during large-scale exercises and disasters, the Communications Unit can be very effective with a smaller footprint than expected. Figure 2 displays the essential operating tools to establish emergency communications: laser printer, laptop for Winlink/email, go kit, and administration and safety center.
Fig. 2. Essential set-up for the Communications Unit in the EOC (June 2022).
Complexities of Establishing External Communications
The exercise was quite complex, spanning a multi-state region, which required the communications team to set up a 35-foot-tall x 250-ft-long wire antenna called a dipole. This type of antenna is primarily for long-distance communications. However, due to poor radio band conditions, a radio program called Winlink allowed operators to send email messages via a computer over a ham radio. Sending one of these messages enabled the ham operators to request an AT&T FirstNet Satellite Cell On Light Truck (SatCOLT) and a cache of some FirstNet devices. The SatCOLT restores limited cell services with priority to the EOC and first responders nearby equipped with First Net systems. These FirstNet devices allowed the Communications Unit to establish email, internet, and cell phone traffic for the entire EOC staff.
Ham operators also used the Winlink and amateur radio systems to send daily situation reports for the USV-JSC and their commander in Southern California. Historically, digital messaging like Winlink has been used for sending health and welfare messages out of disaster zones. These messages can be typed into a laptop, saved on a thumb drive, and walked into a communications center where they can be sent via amateur radio to relatives out of the disaster zone.
When an incident occurs, rapidly establishing reliable communications is critical for exchanging information and ensuring that responders know the resources needed for the affected areas. As the June exercise demonstrated, amateur radio operators equipped with go kits provide an agile and adaptable opportunity for connecting communities when power and traditional communications are interrupted. Several takeaways should be considered for future exercises:
- Train more local teams to support communications needs. In the weeks leading up to the large-scale Thunderbird and Whale exercise, the communications team had great difficulty finding and engaging radio operators due to the shortage of operators available. Training more radio operators would help to alleviate this problem in the future. As a result, the NTEMC now offers weekly amateur radio training sessions and quarterly testing opportunities via Zoom for all new operators who are potentially interested.
- Encourage tribal governments to access training to build out amateur radio operations. In rural and remote areas, communications may take longer to restore than in more populated urban areas. As such, pre-positioned ham radios and equipment could provide tribal communities with critical communications capabilities. Since the June exercise, more tribal emergency managers are now engaging in NTARA training with more in-person and online workshops to learn about equipment needs, how to procure and build go kits and larger-scale radio stations with the best equipment that meets their needs, and most importantly how to utilize the equipment
- Conduct regular radio exercises with tribal, city, county, state, and federal partners. Frequent activities would allow tribes to prepare for any communication loss and accept help from trained non-tribal local members, such as ARES Teams.
- Create a memorandum of understanding with the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL). With public service as one of its five pillars, ARRL’s national association of ham radio operators is an excellent resource for agencies and organizations to collaborate with when preparing for emergencies, exercises, or special event planning.
The Thunderbird and Whale exercise simulated a real-world response and pushed ham radio operators to the limits to establish critical communications where none were available. These events present unique challenges and assemble people with various skill sets to find solutions and close communication gaps. With the lessons learned from this exercise, the event planners have already started working on Thunderbird and Whale 2024. The 2024 event will include a weekend with more local amateur radio teams, clubs, and tribal community members to build a more robust network. The facets of amateur radio are especially beneficial to tribal and remote communities. This exercise demonstrated that ham radio could provide greater resilience and promote new working relationships with neighbors. However, there are still many more opportunities to explore.
Special thanks to the following volunteers for making the EOC operations a success: JD Shaw, K7LCW, who is the Kitsap County emergency coordinator with the Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES); and Randall LeVeque, KJ7WLT, and his wife Loyce Adams, KJ7ZOL, who are members of Seattle (WA) Auxiliary Communications Service (ACS).