Thursday, January 8, 2015

CERTs Tuned in, Turned on to Radio for Emergency Communications

Communicating on the radio is just like talking on the phone, right? It's easy; everyone knows how to do it; so why do we need to practice it?

If you've ever had to talk with someone who wouldn't let you get a word in, or who you couldn't understand, or who took forever to get to the point... then, make it so that only one person at a time can talk... and finally, throw in the confusion and stress of a disaster, then you'll see that it's harder than it looks at first glance.

The December 2 Communications Practical Exercise was a followup class, putting CERTs to the test on the knowledge they learned in previous CERT Emergency Communications classes.

After a brief classroom refresher on radio use and procedures (including an update from CERT Adjunct Instructor Brian Talbot on changes to Fairfax County Fire & Rescue's radio prowords -- in a nutshell, "Copy" is back to meaning "understood," and "Direct" has been replaced by the more common "Affirmative"), the CERT students were divided into teams of two, given handheld FRS radios, and sent to Division leaders for assignments.

Division controllers during the radio exercise. Clockwise from top left: Alpha: Edgar Rodriguez; Bravo: Brendan O'Neill; Charlie: James Sobecke; Delta: Carlos Santiso

In this scenario, CERT searchers were given the mission of conducting a damage assessment of the storm-damaged Fire Academy grounds. Teams had to identify pre-placed cones marking hazards, survivors, and other notable items in their search area, then use proper radio procedures to quickly and accurately report their findings to their Division leads.

CERT search team members check in with Division Bravo Lead for call signs and instructions.

Complicating matters was weather that matched the scenario: cold and rainy. Personally, I learned a valuable lesson about using waterproof notebooks to take notes. (In fact, the very next day, I ordered a bunch for my own supplies). The benefit of using plastic bags to protect radio equipment and sheet protectors to protect maps also became apparent.

In the after-action, students and instructors discussed challenges they encountered, including the proper time and place for repeat-backs (reading back information to verify accurate reception) and what to do in the event of unreliable or lost radio communications.

Also, the Division controllers who managed the radio nets (the hardest job of the evening), noted that they had initially set up too close together, making it hard to communicate over the noise.

There's a reason why radio communication isn't a part of the core CERT curriculum -- it deserves its own training, which these classes do a great job in fulfilling. But CERTs interested in getting deeper into radio would find even more the following week...

Hams and CERTs
On December 10, CERTs interested in amateur (Ham) radio met in Fairfax County's Alternate Emergency Operations Center (AEOC, located in the basement of the Fairfax County Government Center), to learn more about the role of amateur radio in CERT and emergency communications.

As previously noted, there's a natural overlap between CERTs and Hams, with many getting involved in one program, then discovering the other. In fact, most of the meeting attendees had already gotten their Ham licenses, or were in the process of doing so. However, many of the them hadn't gotten on the air since, and were looking for help on what to do next.

CERT James Sobecke outlines the role of Hams during emergencies.

In his presentation, CERT Volunteer Instructor James Sobecke talked about the role of Hams during emergencies, and some of the ways that CERTs could become involved. One of them is to join the Fairfax County Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), which currently runs a weekly radio net for ARES members to check in.

CERT and ARES member Mary Moon checks in to the Wednesday night ARES radio net in the radio room at the AEOC.

Another possibility is developing more CERT-specific radio capabilities, including a Fairfax County CERT radio net (similar to one that has been tested over the past few months), using the Fairfax County CERT website to provide resources for CERTs interested in building their emergency radio skills, and incorporating more amateur radio in CERT training exercises.

Mary Moon displays some of her radio equipment.

As demonstrated by the people in the room, there's a lot of interest in developing CERT emergency communication capabilities using amateur radio, so stay tuned for more developments.

Joe Loong, volunteer Social Media Specialist for Fairfax County CERT, is an editorial content and community engagement consultant. You can email him at

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