“Amazing Help:” Hams Play Critical Role in Colorado Flood Evacuation
Amateur Radio volunteers assisting with communications in the aftermath of the devastating Colorado flooding came in for high praise recently for their role in helping to safely evacuate youngsters and others from a mountain environmental education center threatened with being cut off by road washouts. In an Op-Ed piece last week in the Longmont Times-Call, Sandra Harem, the executive director of the JPII Outdoor Lab in Estes Park, Colorado, cited the “amazing help” from hams and others in getting the students, school staff and Lab staff out of harm’s way on September 12.
“The staff of the JPII Outdoor Lab would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to the volunteers of the Mountain Emergency Radio Network [MERN] and so many others who helped the seventh-grade students, chaperones and staff of St Vincent De Paul Catholic School and staff of the JPII Outdoor Lab get home safely to their families,” Harem said.
On September 12, Harem called the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office to find out about road conditions. Because of the heavy rainfall, she and the school’s assistant principal were getting a group of seventh graders ready to leave as soon as possible. “The sheriff’s office said Highways 34 and 36 were closed,” she recounted. “We worked on alternative routes.”
An hour later, the director of the affiliated High Peak Camp told Harem they needed to relocate in case power went down. The sheriff’s office advised relocating to a Red Cross evacuation center in Allenspark, which subsequently invited the group.
Hearing the call, MERN volunteer Karel Kosman, KDØRFQ, contacted fellow MERN member Steve Coles, KDØRFT, that the group needed help evacuating. Coles deployed to the JPII Outdoor Lab and helped relocate the students, staff and chaperones safely, Harem said.
After Coles left to help others, communication was cut off, so the assistant principal and Harem drove to the Allenspark Fire Station and to the Estes Park Police Station hoping to get better information. “It took us until 9 PM to return to our group at Highlands [the shelter site] by hiking and a few helpful car rides, because Highway 7 had ruptured in two places,” Harem said.
Early the next morning, Coles was back to help with communication with the Boulder County Office of Emergency Management. According to Harem, Coles advised the OEM to have Colorado Department of Transportation personnel see if it might be possible to take buses on the Peak to Peak Highway. A plan evolved to have the buses meet the group at the point of a highway washout near the junction of Highways 72 and 7, then walk the students across the compromised road to the buses. The Archdiocese of Denver, the superintendent of Catholic Schools and the Boulder County OEM okayed the plan.
That afternoon, buses arrived on Highway 7. “We transported the students, chaperones, St Vincent staff and JPII Outdoor Lab staff to the meeting point, and all students were reunited with their families at St Vincent De Paul Catholic School that evening,” Harem said.
Among others, Harem praised Coles for “his tireless patience, persistence and care of all of the students, chaperones and staff,” and Kosman “for radioing on our behalf to Steve Coles.” She also thanked all MERN members “for making it possible to have such effective communication during an emergency.”
ARRL Colorado Section Manager Jack Ciaccia, WMØG, says MERN is an Amateur Radio repeater system built by members of the Boulder County (BCARES) group and was the brainchild of BCARES Emergency Coordinator Allen Bishop, KØARK.
“The two MERN ham radio operators that were involved in this rescue, Steve Coles, KDØRFT, and Karel Kosman, KDØRFQ, are two of some 60 mountain residents who attended the ham radio classes put on by BCARES members in the mountain communities over the last year and were recently licensed after taking the FCC exam given by ARRL Volunteer Examiners who are also members of BCARES,” Ciaccia pointed out.
He notes that the hams at the Boulder OEM and the EOC were BCARES operators who were monitoring all traffic from the MERN repeaters as well as from other EOCs on the air from flooded counties along the Front Range as well as communications from the state EOC. “The hams who happened to be monitoring at the Boulder EOC at the time were George Weber, KAØBSA, and Dave Sharpe, KIØHG,” Ciaccia said. “These two hams, coincidentally, had been Steve and Karel’s MERN ham radio license instructors and Volunteer Examiners as well as part of the BCARES group who built and installed the MERN repeaters.”
Ciaccia said it was Weber and Sharpe who coordinated with the Boulder OEM and Transportation Group to arrange for the buses, then got them on their way by relaying communications from the MERN radio operators in the flood-stricken zones.