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Oregon Hams Participate in Statewide Disaster Drill

05/07/2009

The State of Oregon conducted a full-scale week long exercise April 24-30, simulating a 9.2 magnitude earthquake on the Cascadia Subduction Zone. According to Tillamook County Emergency Management Director Gordon McCraw, WX7EM, if an earthquake struck the zone, it would cause "major destruction" from the Cascade Mountains all the way to the West Coast. Instead of focusing on the actual disaster, the exercise instead concentrated on the 72 hours after the event. This, officials said, would put the primary focus on life-saving response and debris removal, as well as mass-casualty and short-term recovery.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone -- a very long sloping fault that stretches from mid-Vancouver Island to Northern California -- separates and connects the Juan de Fuca Plate and North American Plate. The Zone is creating new ocean floor off the Washington and Oregon coasts; as more material wells up along the ocean ridge, the ocean floor is pushed toward and beneath the continent.

"The simulation -- codenamed Cascade Peril -- included a major tsunami striking the coastline," McCraw said. "Such an event would result in a severe disruption to local utilities, including electricity and phone services, so local Amateur Radio operators were called upon to relay message traffic from the Tillamook County Sheriff's Office Command Center to the Incident Command Team. From there, officials evaluated the needs request and forwarded the traffic on to the Regional Facility that had been set up at a National Guard Base near Cannon Beach, Oregon. Emergency Management officials then consolidated these requests and sent them to the State Emergency Management Office in Salem."

McCraw said that officials participating in Cascade Peril expected that if this were an actual event, roads would be affected, so as part of the simulation, the US Coast Guard dispatched a helicopter to the Tillamook Airport. There it picked up three Tillamook area Amateur Radio operators and flew them to Camp Rilea National Guard Base in Warrenton, about 65 miles north of Tillamook.

At Camp Rilea, the hams established communications on 2 meters and Winlink between all facilities. "Amateurs relayed message traffic on voice, and many new hams used Winlink for the first time, having received their license only a couple months prior to the exercise," McCraw said. "In Tillamook County, we used 11 hams at two locations. Four Tillamook hams at Camp Rilea participated with hams from neighboring Clatsop County. These hams sent and received a total of 37 messages on Friday and 32 messages on Saturday before the exercise was terminated around noon."

In the months leading up to the exercise, McCraw said Tillamook County installed amateur stations at the Tillamook County Sheriff's Office -- home of the Emergency Operations Center and the back-up 911 center are located -- and at the primary regional 911 center in downtown Tillamook, where the Incident Command Team operates during disasters. "Because of the excellent service the Amateur Radio community provided during the December 2007 storm events that saw a severe disruption of landline and cell phone service in many coastal communities, including Tillamook County, Emergency Management officials installed the Amateur Radio stations at these facilities," McCraw said. "Both the county and the state recognized the capabilities Amateur Radio offered and they provided some of the equipment needed to install these stations."

McCraw said that Tillamook County has been called the most "disaster rich" county in Oregon: "This past November, December and January, Tillamook County experienced three floods and a severe snow event that resulted in Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski declaring these areas disaster zones. As has now become standard practice during activation of the Incident Command Team, Amateur Radio operators were on the scene, attending all briefings and manning the stations until the event was terminated."

ARRL District Emergency Coordinator for Oregon's District One David Kidd, KZ7OZO, told the ARRL that Tillamook County is "very lucky" to have Gordon McCraw, WX7EM: "Not only is Gordon the Emergency Coordinator (EC) for the County ARESĀ® unit, but he is now the County Emergency Management Director after serving as a Senior Deputy since his arrival in Oregon. Gordon brings his vast experience in law enforcement and emergency management to the county from his time spent working in both fields during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. This is important since Tillamook County has been the focal point for several severe weather events in the recent past. Gordon takes is job very seriously and has his people train hard so they are ready for the real thing."

Kidd said that McCraw -- appointed as EC in April 2007 -- has helped to build a very effective unit "from scratch" -- the county had not had an ARES unit for more than 10 years before McCraw's appointment.

"Tillamook County is a rural county and volunteers are an absolute necessity to get the mission accomplished here," McCraw concluded, "and Amateur Radio operators are at the top of that list. I consider them amateurs in name alone."



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