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Hams Quickly Switch from Drill to Emergency Mode When Severe Weather Strikes


Just two days before the start of ARRL Field Day, Amateur Radio operators in South Central Pennsylvania were preparing for a regularly scheduled bi-annual exercise involving the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station, located on the Susquehanna River. The drill is required as part of the licensing process for the power plant.

“Nuclear power plants have to do well in emergency planning as part of their licensing requirements,” said ARRL Eastern Pennsylvania Section ARES® District 5 Emergency Coordinator Daniel Sullivan, KO1D. “For hams to shine in that setting is more important than Field Day to the non-hams who are community or agency leaders within the public safety community, and it shows what Amateur Radio can do.”

Many of the Amateur Radio operators participating in the drill had been involved with previous drills, and according to ARRL Eastern Pennsylvania Assistant Section Manager Bob Josuweit, WA3PZO, most of the hams thought they knew what to expect: “Right as they were preparing to begin the drill, the hams started experiencing harsh weather and the National Weather Service issued severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings. Within 15 minutes of the warnings being issued Lancaster County ARES® Emergency Coordinator Ron Small, WB2OOB, and Lancaster County RACES Officer Chris Bunting, K1CWB, reported that communications went down just before the drill began and in some municipalities, remained out during the drill due to storm damage to the telecommunications infrastructure.”

Amateur Radio operators who were pre-positioned to support the drill integrated SKYWARN operations into the drill’s RACES net. In Drumore Township in Lancaster County, Small became the only reliable communications at the municipal Emergency Operations Center when commercial communications networks went down. He reported that fax and telephone services were intermittent and other communications systems were not operational due to the storms.

Bunting said he heard the weather alert on the local repeater: “When I heard a tornado warning being broadcast for Southern Lancaster County, I decided that we must start a ‘hybrid net’ and start SKYWARN operations while preparing for the Peach Bottom drill.” When the first operator arrived at Lancaster County EOC, he set up net control and began the SKYWARN net. Bunting announced that this would be a hybrid net, and that he was looking for weather reports from our operators in the field. He immediately received a report of golf ball-sized hail in the southern end of the county.

“Bunting passed this information on to Lancaster County Emergency Management Coordinator Randy Gockley, who in turn contacted the National Weather Service,” Josuweit told the ARRL. “Meteorologists at the NWS indicated that there was a strong chance of a tornado in the southern end of the county.”

With the extreme possibility of a tornado in the area, Gockley decided to activate the emergency warning sirens in the southern part of Lancaster County, warning residents of the possible tornado. Net control immediately notified all stations of this, and in turn, the RACES personnel at each municipal EOC notified the staff. “For some EOCs, this was the only method of communication to let them know why the sirens were sounding, as there were power outages and telephony outages throughout the area,” Josuweit explained. “Our RACES operators continued to pass on vital storm information to net control until the storms had passed.”

The National Weather Service confirmed that an EF-0 tornado occurred near Hershey, home of Hershey chocolates and a large amusement park. Winds reached 80 miles per hour and damage in the area ranged from downed trees to roofs ripped off of several homes. As the storm continued toward Philadelphia, it left uprooted trees and knocked down power lines in its wake.

The Peach Bottom drill started after the threat of severe weather passed, but telecommunications and power outages were still affecting multiple EOCs. According to Josuweit, part of Lancaster County’s RACES pre-planning involves making sure all operators have battery power/generator, radios, power supplies and antennas with them, and to be prepared to operate independent from any infrastructure in place. “In this case, the pre-planning paid off,” Josuweit said, “as all stations were operating, regardless of the power outages at the municipal EOCs. Many locations were having problems sending or receiving faxes and phone calls. RACES maintained the constant contact needed to play out the drill."

York County did not report any weather impact on their ARES/RACES and SKYWARN operations, but they did have severe weather, and at least one fire was reported during the storms, impacting the drill. “At one EOC, almost everyone left to fight fires,” Josuweit said. “The EOC was then staffed by four hams. Drill observers provided good feedback on the hams ability to adapt to the situation. Alan Frame, WB3FTD, said power went out at times at two local EOCs where hams were stationed.”

In Fawn Township, York County, EOC staff members commented that the drill seemed quiet and slow. It was brought to their attention that most of the communication was done by the amateurs --who were in another room -- and via fax. The telephones were not ringing off of the hook. Most of the Amateur Radio communications were sent and received using Narrow Band Emergency Messaging System (NBEMS) and FLDIGI via BPSK250. “We would receive the message and cut/paste it into Notepad to print,” explained Jack Dellinger, N3BQB. “We have also developed a program that allows text entry in the format used by York County’s ISC213 form. We had 100 percent perfect copy on all messages. The County EOC, plus two local EOCs, were active with digital.”

Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) officials thanked the hams for a job well done. “The professionalism and actions of all the volunteers involved clearly demonstrate the value they bring as a communications resource to the emergency management community,” said Acting Commonwealth Auxiliary Communications Systems Coordinator Chris Snyder.

Chief of PEMA’s Bureau of Strategic and Operational Plans’ Technological Hazards Division Henry C. Tamanini, agreed: “Your dedication to providing valuable emergency communications was certainly proven when ‘Mother Nature’ transitioned the majority of the exercise area/Emergency Planning Zone from the exercise mode of the Nuclear Power Plant to the ‘real world’ mode of a weather event with multiple hazards and property damage.”  -- Thanks to Bob Josuweit, WA3PZO, and Dan Sullivan, KO1D, for the information



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