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MARS Lends a Hand with Hurricane Dolly Operations

08/02/2008

When Tropical Storm Dolly turned into Hurricane Dolly, various Amateur Radio Emergency Communications groups, such as WX4NHC at the National Hurricane Center, the Hurricane Watch Net (HWN) and the VoIP WX Net (VOIPWX), began tracking the storm. One other group -- the Army's Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS) -- was also on the scene.

According to Texas State MARS Director Dave Martin, MARS leadership began to track the storm while it was still in the Atlantic. MARS established a liaison with the Texas Military Forces (TXMF) and the Texas State Operations Center (SOC). An Alert Notification message was sent to all MARS members on July 18, informing Texas Army MARS that the SOC was at full operations and would announce when they would request full mobilization of all agencies. This decision was made just two days later and an additional Alert Notification was sent to the membership to begin emergency net operations on July 22 at 8 AM.

"Our mission was to support the TXMF and the SOC with HF communications by expanding the normal net schedule and establishing a full-time liaison," Martin said. "In addition, requests were sent to the other MARS services in the region asking for liaison stations to participate in the Army nets. Fortunately, a hurricane exercise had been completed a week before and the exercise operations order was used to execute this mission. We reacted to the storm the same way we trained for the emergency."

Beginning on July 22, Texas MARS opened E-nets at 8 AM, 1 PM, 7 PM and 10 PM, with a 6 AM net opening the next day. While the Net Control Stations were in Texas, support was received from Oklahoma and Louisiana Army MARS. TXMF was notified that Texas Army MARS had received permission from Army MARS Headquarters to deploy HF communications teams with their deploying elements as we had done during a pervious exercise. During the emergency, the nets had an average of 25-30 check-ins; all traffic was sent via MT63 or Winlink 2000.

Martin said that all MARS stations in the affected area were off the air during the height of the storm; however, MARS member Tom Whiteside was able to facilitate the use of the Winlink network, exchanging traffic with the Harlingen Emergency Operations Center; Harlingen is about 27 miles north of Mexico in Texas's southern tip. This area was one of the hardest hit areas in the state

As Hurricane Dolly approached Harlingen, Sergeant Gerald Manthey, KC6CNN, Harlingen's Director of Emergency Communications, was on duty at the EOC. Manthey has been the driving force in the Rio Grande Valley for Winlink, as well as pushing amateur voice capabilities in the area with surrounding agencies. Harlingen became the South Texas ARES' fifth EMCOMM PMBO in December of 2007 with both local VHF Packet and HF PACTOR capability.

Due to a localized power failure, the EOC was soon running on generator power. During the storm, Manthey kept in touch with both the SOC and the Emergency Operations Center in San Antonio. He also kept in touch with other hams in the valley via both voice and Winlink.

"Winlink is the perfect tool for this sort of thing," said Manthey. "You can send messages and get them when you have time. The system works very well even without the Internet, and Winlink is more secure and just easier for complicated messages."

Manthey communicated with the City of Brownsville EOC, the Cameron County EOC, the Valley Baptist Medical Center and individual amateurs via Winlink throughout the storm. One of those hams was ARRL West Gulf Division Vice Director David Woolweaver, K5RAV, who operates a Winlink RMS Packet station in Harlingen. The AE5R station was the first test of the new RMS Relay program that provides for local message hubbing of during an Internet outage.

MARS emergency operations continued until 10 PM on July 24 when Kevin Lemon, the State RACES officer, stood down the Amateur Radio operation. Army MARS also ceased operations at the SOC, but remained on call in case of a flooding event. "Hurricane Dolly was a serious but not major storm," Martin said. "Even at that, there were times when communications were out due to winds or flooding. Volunteers in MARS and the Amateur Radio community provided what was needed to get through the storm and are standing by for any after effects." -- Thanks to Texas State Army MARS Director Dave Martin, K5YFO/AAA6TX, and Tom Whiteside, N5TW/AAR6CQ, for the information



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