Christopher Larsen WB0BZD
Thurston County ARES Teams with Washington Department of Transportation; Statewide Partnership Planned
OLYMPIA, Wash. – Amateur radio has a long history of working with governmental and local organizations during crises and disasters. A new partnership between the Washington Department of Transportation and Thurston County Amateur Radio Emergency Services is looking to take that cooperation to a new level.
After nearly a year of talking, planning, and coordination, WSDOT and TC-ARES tested the new amateur radio communications room at WSDOT’s Olympia site on April 29, during a statewide disaster exercise focusing on roads and bridges.
The exercise, which linked WSDOT regions and ARES chapters around the state, resulted in the handling of over 120 messages between the stations.
“I’ve been so impressed with the with the hams,” said Littleton “Lit” Dudley, WSDOT Olympic Region’s emergency manager. “They’re willing to do what it takes to get the job done.
“They’re very community-minded,” Dudley added. "The day turned out to be extra rewarding for me; learning about and being exposed to it (amateur radio) was impressive.”
Eric Frank, WSDOT Southwest Region emergency manager, agreed.
“Amateur radio volunteers have always been one of the best-engaged and organized volunteer groups in public safety,” Frank said. “They’re problem solvers, exactly what emergency management and our communities will need during a disaster.”
The exercise took place at WSDOT’s Olympic Region Maintenance HQ facility in Lacey and was the first time TC-ARES and the department used a newly set-aside area for radio communications.
The room, located next to the facility’s emergency operations center, is a wide-open space with room for tables, chairs, and radio equipment. In the event of emergency or natural disaster, the EOC and ARES operators would swing into action.
The events leading up to the new partnership happened over a year ago, with a chance meeting during a community event.
“We were at the Lacey Fun Fair with my granddaughter,” said WSDOT’s Rick Reimer, “and saw the [Olympia Amateur Radio Society] booth.”
Reimer said his granddaughter thought the booth and equipment “was cool.” Reimer started talking to the hams running the booth, asking questions about their capabilities, and the idea came up to have OARS and TC-ARES join with WSDOT to coordinate communications during disasters.
Washington has 22 maintenance facilities, known as ‘sheds,’ located throughout the Olympic Region alone. There are over 100 sheds in Washington. Each shed is fitted out with sand, salt, rock, and more to help repair or reinforce roads, bridges, and other infrastructure in the event of a disaster.
Additionally, many sheds are located near law enforcement facilities where hams could also set up communications stations.
“That way, we can get messages to counties faster and acknowledge reports,” Dudley said.
The cooperation between WSDOT and TC-ARES is part of a bigger effort to link other ARES elements in the state with their respective WSDOT regions, Dudley said.
“We have four clubs working with regions right now,” he said. “The Southwest Region has one solid partnership, and there are six total in play statewide.”
Dudley said the eventual goal is to have all 39 Washington counties involved in partnerships with ARES chapters around the state.
“Southwest Region has the most capability right now,” he said. “They have a room, radios, and other equipment.”
The Lacey facility’s ARES workspace is still being prepared. WSDOT is providing antennas, which are being installed on the building’s roof, with coaxial cables being run through the walls to the communications area. The ARES operators supply their own radio gear, either base stations with power supplies or handhelds.
During the April exercise, operators ran cables along the floor and mounted portable antennas on the balcony outside a pair of double doors. It was crude, but it worked, said one operator.
It gives us a chance to stress-test our equipment,” said Steve Tomlin, W7SLT, the TC-ARES liaison.
Even though the first exercise used a temporary setup, the capabilities of the TC-ARES operators impressed WSDOT officials.
“Even the first time was faster than our own crews,” said Reimer.
Damaris “Dee” Deschner, WSDOT’s Eastern Washington’s emergency manager, covers three of the department’s regions east of the Cascade Mountains, and is starting to build up their cooperative programs with the ARES chapters in that part of the state. She’s hoping that in the future, there will be an annual ARES exercise with WSDOT, including with what she called ‘spontaneous volunteers.’
“That’s using a WSDOT representative in a county EOC testing communications procedures,” she said, “along with having a ham radio volunteer at a WSDOT regional headquarters, testing procedures there.”
Dudley, the Olympic Region emergency manager, said they hoped to have the ARES operators take part in more exercises, such as the International ShakeOut Day earthquake drill, scheduled for Oct. 19.
“It’s a statewide exercise, with full activation of our EOC,” he said.
Another ARES member said the partnership between WSDOT, and the hams is beneficial to both groups.
“It’s yet another agency we can help,” said Phil Cornell, W7PLC, “and it provides endless training for operations.”
Reimer said it was hard to find a downside in the partnership between WSDOT and TC-ARES.
“I see working with them as a ‘plus-plus’,” he said. “If the big one happens, ham radio is going to save our bacon.”