Amateur Radio Provides Critical Communication in Colorado Flooding Response
[Updated Sep 14, 2220 UTC] More than five dozen Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) volunteers have deployed in and around flood-stricken counties of Colorado, providing critical communication for Red Cross shelters and state and local emergency operation centers. Recent heavy rains have caused veritable mountainside tsunamis that have caused rivers and streams to overflow their banks, ravaged roads and property and displaced an undetermined number of residents. At least three people are known to have died. ARRL Colorado Section Manager Jack Ciaccia, WMØG, says that with power cut off to affected communities and many cell telephone towers along the Big Thompson River toppled by the flooding, ham radio is providing medical and health-and-welfare traffic between evacuation centers and the EOCs.
“Every EOC is being staffed by ARES people,” Ciaccia told ARRL. “Almost every evacuation center has an ARES communicator, doing either voice or packet communications between EOCs and shelters.”
The isolated towns of Estes Park, Lyons, and Jamestown were or still are relying solely on ham radio for contact with the outside. Jamestown has since been evacuated. “Everybody was huddled into the high school there,” Ciaccia told ARRL. He was in contact with the mayor there and trying to get the community needed resources as soon as possible. Hams in Estes Park have been working out of the EOC in the Town Hall, which is on high ground. “There’s no place to go. Everything’s flooded,” Ciaccia said. “The only ham in Lyons was working out of an evacuation center at the local elementary school.” He said the National Guard has been relocating some evacuees, as the shelter has become overcrowded.
On Saturday, September 14, US Congressman Cory Gardner (R-4) visited the state emergency operation center to express his appreciation to the Amateur Radio operators responding to the historic flooding disaster. Rep Gardner asked Colorado Section Emergency Coordinator Robert Wareham, NØESQ, to extend his thanks to all ARES members staffing positions in the field as well.
Boulder County has deployed miniature drone aircraft carrying Amateur TV cameras to survey the affected, more remote regions, for now to spot individuals who may need to be rescued. “We’re still in a search-and-rescue mode,” Ciaccia said, “not really in a damage-assessment mode.”
Ciaccia said the drones — a fixed-wing aircraft and a hybrid gas/electric-powered helicopter — have been transmitting ATV video via UHF to the ground and simultaneously recording the video on a memory stick. The helicopter can remain in the air for more than 5 hours at a clip, recording images for officials at the EOC to evaluate. Ciaccia said Boulder County Emergency Coordinator Al Bishop, KØARK, owns Reference Technology, the company providing the drones.
Eyes and Ears
Ciaccia said that during the past year the Boulder County ARES team created the Mountain Emergency Radio Network (MERN) on its own time and money and put up two repeaters — one at Allenspark and another in Gold Hill. “The intent was to start educating people in the mountain regions to become hams,” Ciaccia said. Some 65 individuals have gotten their licenses, and the team provided each with a radio. “Those radios and those people — they became the eyes and ears for their communities,” Ciaccia explained.
As power was lost, the only remaining means of communication were the two repeaters operating on propane-powered generators. “The system worked,” Ciaccia added, “and we were able to utilize it for emergency communication purposes.” Those communities have since been evacuated.
News media accounts citing the state Office of Emergency Management say 19 Colorado counties remain under a high threat of flooding. These include Boulder, Arapahoe, Weld, Park, Jefferson, Larimer, Clear Creek, Adams, Douglas, Broomfield, Gilpin, Denver, Logan, Morgan, Washington, El Paso, Teller, Pueblo and Elbert.
State authorities are warning residents in the hard-hit counties to stay off the road. Interstate 25 from the Wyoming line to Denver has been closed, along with part of Interstate 70.
The Colorado Section Facebook page includes updates on the ARES activation.