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Hams Help Out with Historic Day

01/22/2009

On Tuesday, January 20, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States. Numerous organizations -- federal, state and local agencies, the staff of Presidents Bush and Obama, as well as private agencies -- were involved in the months of planning required to make the event go smoothly. From the very beginning, Amateur Radio operators were involved, making sure that communications support was available by providing backup communications in the event that primary communications were disrupted.

Amateur Radio Involved from the Beginning

According to ARRL Virginia Section Public Information Coordinator Joe Safranek, K4JJS, the Virginia and Maryland Offices of Emergency Management -- as well as various local jurisdictions in and around the Washington, DC metro area -- requested the assistance of Amateur Radio operators to provide local and short distance communications for the inauguration and the events leading up to it.

Safranek said that ARRL Virginia Section Manager Carl Clements, W4CAC, and ARESĀ®-RACES of Virginia Section Emergency Coordinator Ron Sokol, K4KHZ, selected Assistant Section Emergency Coordinator Bruce Freund, K7BC, to be the project officer for this event.

"Freund's area of responsibility covered two Virginia ARES districts that are comprised of 14 cities and counties along the western border of the District of Columbia," Safranek said. "These districts are managed by Howard Cunningham, WD5DBC, and Tom Lauzon, KI4AFE. They had to ensure that their jurisdictional Emergency Coordinators and members accomplished the mission objectives received from event officials. Numerous Amateur Radio operators involved with the various organizations serving the jurisdictions in Virginia, DC and Maryland all worked together."

Across the Potomac River, ARRL Maryland/DC Section Manager James Cross, WI3N, and Section Emergency Coordinator Steve Beckman, N3SB, were actively involved from the beginning with planning and preparation efforts. If needed, Section leadership was prepared to assist within the District. In DC, members of Radio Emergency Associated Communications Teams (REACT) were also part of the planning; the organization had a representative at the very first regional planning meeting.

Planning for communications support during the inauguration drew upon the expertise and relationships developed through the years of planning the annual Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) in DC, Safranek said. "The marathon is our major regional Amateur Radio event in the Metropolitan DC area," he said. "When planning our communications support for the marathon, we use the Incident Command Structure (ICS). We decided to use ICS with the inauguration, too. By using a system we were all familiar with, we had a head start."

Safranek listed some of the many ways amateurs helped out with communications support: Nick Meacher, N3WWE, built on a template the group used for the marathon for the compilation of the Incident Communications Plan, ICS Form 205. Weeks in advance of the inauguration, Fairfax County Emergency Coordinator Jeff Wilson, AI4IO, led a field test of the repeaters planned for use for the primary Regional Coordination Net to ensure that participating Emergency Operations Centers would be able operate cleanly through the selected repeaters. Field tests are a key lesson learned from MCM and identified necessary changes to the Communication Plan. District Emergency Coordinator Howard Cunningham, WB5DBC, serves the marathon as Special Project Officer. He prepared a staffing approach for mutual assistance that, if needed, would rely on the on-call ARES/RACES organizations in Loudoun, Prince William and Fauquier counties to supplement the activated groups in Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church and Fairfax.

Safranek said that the area's communications equipment was well suited to the task: "Using a combination of many systems, hams were able to move information quickly and efficiently. The Network Engineers Repeater Association (NERA) UHF linked repeater system supported the primary Regional Coordination Net. Local group operations used other analog VHF and UHF systems for phone, Winlink, packet and other modes of operation, as well as the use of a D-STAR VHF/UHF voice and data system. Some operators monitored the Old Dominion Emergency Net/Alfa on 3947 kHz."

On the Maryland/DC side of the Potomac River, hams were active in other areas, including several stationed at RFK Stadium to assist with the visitors from the more than 1200 buses that were parked there. District EOCs in Prince Georges and Montgomery Counties also had hams providing communications support.

Fairfax ARES-RACES Units Assist in Planning, Implementation

ASEC Bruce Freund singled out the achievements of the Fairfax ARES-RACES Unit, specifically the actions of Fairfax Assistant Emergency Coordinator Tom Azlin, N4ZPT. "Tom was deeply involved in the local and regional planning activities before the event; he serves a similar key role in the Marine Corps Marathon leadership. But in my opinion, it was his performance in the execution of the plan that is particularly noteworthy. During the field testing for the Regional Coordination Net, several jurisdictions could not reliably hit the planned repeaters, so we made the decision to shift to the NERA linked UHF system. Unfortunately, the Fairfax EOC VHF/UHF antenna only provides marginal coverage into NERA. Due to the difficulties the EOC experienced when the Regional Coordination Net opened at 4 AM, Tom put a separate liaison channel in place to supplement the EOC's NERA link and manned it himself while developing a watch bill to ensure coverage on this unanticipated circuit. That liaison channel was covered solidly throughout the day and was the last ARES-RACES circuit secured at the end of operations on Tuesday evening. Tom made sure that the EOC was staffed beginning at 3 AM, until it was secured a little after 8 PM. While his leadership in the planning activities is noteworthy, Tom's stepping forward to provide leadership ensuring successful execution merits special recognition."

Fairfax Assistant Emergency Coordinator for Operations, Art Pond, KD4FBT, worked very long days during the planning phase. Due to his job on Capitol Hill, he was busy getting the new members' IT infrastructure set up. "He pulled one of the six hour rotations in the EOC during what might have been the highest activity time if there had been transport problems inbound," Freund said. "This shows the dedication of the volunteers in working very long days on their regular job, pulling activation duty for the event, and then going back to their regular jobs the very next day."

In Fairfax, one operator was on duty at the local Emergency Operations Center at the beginning and end of the activation, while two were on duty during the main portion of the event. EOCs in Alexandria, Arlington and Falls Church City also had ARES/RACES operators on duty. The Virginia State EOC was manned with a full Amateur Radio crew utilizing HF, VHF and UHF links via voice, packet and Winlink to the inauguration Nets. Besides providing support at EOCs, amateurs were also on duty at Alexandria Hospital, while others were on standby to support communications at two other hospitals in Prince William County, as well as EOCs in Loudoun, Fauquier and Prince William Counties.

MARS Lends a Hand

Freund is also a member of Army MARS. He served as Net Control Station on the MARS frequencies during the event. According to Safranek, Army MARS HQ at Ft Huachuca, Arizona, put out a directive stating an Actual Incident Net would be established, directing the type of MARS coverage that would be required and how Region 3 (in the DC area) would have liaisons from other regions available to pass any necessary traffic. ARRL Emergency Preparedness and Response Manager Dennis Dura, K2DCD, monitored both ham radio frequencies and the ARRL HQ MARS station, AAN1ARL. At the Virginia Commonwealth level, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management opened their EOC where Terry Hebert, KG4GLS, coordinated Amateur Radio activities. State EOCs in Maryland and Virginia had Army MARS operators on premises participating in their regional nets.

Pleased and Proud

Sokol said he was pleased at the outcome of this historical event: "When I was appointed SEC in April 2008, I told the ASECs that they are the managers over their areas and they will be given the opportunity to do just that -- manage operations in their designated areas. Section Manager Carl Clements, W4CAC, totally agreed with this comment and has been extremely supportive of efforts to delegate authority to the intermediary managers, the ASECs and the District Emergency Coordinators, since they are the local area experts. I am really proud of the way in which ARES-RACES of Virginia participated in this event."

"As Virginia Section Manager, I am responsible for a myriad of items -- the emergency communications aspect of the hobby being one of prime importance," Clements said. "With a senior leader like Ron Sokol, a staff of ASECs like Bruce, our DECs, and our local ECs performing their managerial and supervisory duties in an outstanding manner, there is no wonder why our numbers are constantly growing. The Section has accomplished a lot in less than a year, including a Memorandum of Understanding with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. We have been instrumental in working with a group of dedicated hams in the western areas of the Commonwealth in building an RF link to the eastern areas of Virginia and now we are participating in the inauguration of the President of the United States of America. I could not be more proud of these fine men and women as I am now."



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