2013 Southern Alberta Floods – Five Years Later

November/December 2018 Cover Page

This article was published in TCA, The Canadian Amateur, Canada’s Amateur Radio Magazine, November/December 2018 edition.  Copyright Vince d’Eon 2018.  This article may not be reproduced without the author’s permission.  If you like this article then check out part one and part two.

The following article was written by Vince d’Eon, VE6LK/AI7LK, of the Foothills Amateur Radio Society/ARES in Okotoks, Alberta along with contributions from Dann St-Pierre, VE6TD/KU7R and others.

Five years ago Radio Amateurs in Alberta helped out emergency responders during one of Canada’s largest natural disasters – the Southern Alberta Floods of 2013. The articles I wrote about the Amateur response to that event were originally published in the September-October 2013 and November-December 2013 issues of The Canadian Amateur magazine.

This article describes where we are five years later. It is my hope that you learn from our successes and mistakes, and incorporate these into your group or personal plans. Feel free to reach out to me via @vincedeon on Twitter to discuss it further.

Prelude

Progress takes a few different forms: Forward, Stagnant and Backward. Plans, finances and relationships ebb and flow over time, and change that is introduced to any situation requires rethinking and building of revised plans for all parties. Patience for oneself and others is key in any longer-term view of an event or plans for an event.

Background

The end of June each year presents an activity for Radio Amateurs: the annual ARRL Field Day. It usually involves much (or little) planning, hot dogs, cold drinks and creative ways to put up antennas. Sometimes it involves setting up at a public venue, operating in poor weather and some gnashing of teeth when things aren’t going well. Oh, and there’s a contest in there too! Despite this mixed bag, Field Day remains a popular event.

In 2013, the activity I really wanted to do was Field Day but I had a prior Amateur Radio commitment elsewhere. June is a busy month for me as I enjoy volunteering at many different events and I need to ensure that I’m not double-booking myself. Such was the case on that fateful weekend in June 2013 when, a few days earlier, I was coaching a new Field Day Captain on the basics as I had to be elsewhere. In my wildest dreams at that time, I could never have imagined that “elsewhere” would be the Emergency Operations Centre in High River, Alberta dealing with one of Canada’s largest natural disasters to date.

Since then I find myself at fewer Amateur Radio events per year and serving in Net Control at those I do attend, whereas in the past I was frequently deployed in a field position. I enjoy the demands and cadence of Net Control in Rallysport, and appreciate being involved on the organizing committees if only to see how an event works from behind the scenes.

Another favourite of mine is the MS Bike Tour where we have almost 40 operators handling a two-day cycle tour with over 600 cyclists and over 100 volunteers. Net Control is the heart of event logistics and in 2018 we were put to the test when inclement weather hit minutes before the event started. At that very moment I was grateful to be able to draw on my past experiences. The Tour happens on the same weekend as Field Day so we treat it the same way and if something doesn’t work out we improvise. We take this approach and we always run redundant systems at these events.

We integrate a large amount of APRS and other telemetry, like RallySafe, at these events to help minimize radio chatter and deal with the onslaught of information at our fingertips in logistics.

As for Field Day each year, I help the Foothills Amateur Radio Society (FARS) with planning and other tasks in the background. As the years go on, it seems I like planning more than the laid-back execution of tasks. I look forward to returning to a more active role in Field Day at some point.

Dann VE6TD, myself and Ian VA6IAB about a year after the floods in front of the new repeater, digipeater and packet radio setup in the High River Hospital.

The Current State of FARS

In 2013, FARS had a network of 11 linked and one standalone repeaters covering some 50,000 square kilometres in Southern Alberta. Since then we’ve added one more linked and one more standalone repeater which serves up IRLP. The new linked repeater was funded by a grant and went in the penthouse of the High River Hospital with antennas on a rooftop tower. It provides excellent coverage to the local area, has battery backup power, and is on the hospital’s generator power. We also added an APRS and a high-speed UHF packet digipeater at this site. We are in the process of designing and deploying a 5 GHz microwave TCP/IP network between several of our repeater sites. This network will operate entirely independent of the public Internet and will provide enhanced connectivity and capabilities to many of our sites including Voice over IP (VoIP), telemetry and remote management.

Technical Interests Change Over Time

A personal direction I didn’t foresee in 2013 was an interest in maintaining and building repeaters. Since the Flood I have taken an active role in the FARS Technical Committee in planning and maintaining the FARS network, along with building up two of my own repeaters. One of my repeaters is highly portable and frequency coordinated to cover the area where I work at events, and the other hosts the FARS IRLP node. A third repeater is planned as finances permit.

One thing I wanted to build up for myself is an Amateur Radio Go-Kit, which I completed a year ago. My Go-Kit addresses several deficiencies learned from the High River Flood and one particularly difficult Rallysport event where I had to evacuate the course of spectators, volunteers and competitors when unexpected weather hit.

My Go-Kit in use at the Rocky Mountain Rally. Computer screens are showing RallySafe.

Among other features, the external speaker I modified has a built-in switch to quickly switch between the speaker and a couple of pairs of headphone jacks. I added magnets on the bottom so it sticks to the top of a radio nicely. My kit has three VFOs available for VHF/UHF and one for HF. The main kit fits into one case and overall it wraps up nicely into three hard shell cases for easy transport. Larger items like my 30-foot mast, antennas and guy ropes come along as required. My RV is kitted out with 700W of solar panels, inverter and generator, and a few LMR feedlines to the outside for antennas in addition to Broadband-Hamnet nodes and other Wi-Fi gear.

Personal Preparation

I was once asked what I would do better during an event like this in the future. The only answer I have is to breathe – that is, take time to think before responding to anything that comes your way. That couple of seconds provides you clarity to make good decisions, based on whatever information is at hand at that instant. In 2015, my new passion for Scuba Diving came along and I was forced to breathe and think carefully as a matter of course. I’ve since learned to bring that simple act into my day-to-day actions and during public service events.

Leadership 101 says to make the best decision you can on the information you have on hand at that moment, as perfection is the enemy of “good enough”. This is especially true in fast-changing situations.

From time to time I am asked what one should do to personally prepare for the skills required to handle a lot of radio traffic. My answer remains the same four points as it has always been:

1) Get involved in events, any event, and help out.

2) Do some sideband voice contesting as this will train your ear and brain to pull messages out of the noise in difficult conditions.

3) Participate in traffic nets as they will train you, through repetition, to respond (or handle traffic) in a controlled manner.

4) Lastly, as my friend Gary Notto, VE3TTO, says during every net, make sure your handheld (HT) batteries are charged up and your gear is ready to go. I handled a lot of traffic during the floods from my HT while running around the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) sites and could not have done this without having charged and reliable batteries.

Along with my close friend Dann, VE6TD, we have taught two Basic Amateur Radio courses and released 30 new Amateurs into the world. A few have continued their studies and have received their Advanced qualification.

Despite being Advanced qualified in Canada and Extra in the USA, this past spring I decided to sit in on an Advanced class taught in Calgary to fill in gaps in my knowledge and I re-learned so many things my high school instructors attempted to inject in my memory some 40 years ago.

I highly suggest the Advanced Amateur course to anyone who does not have that qualification even if you choose to not pursue the exam itself. If you don’t wish to sit the course you can order the Study Guide from one of the suppliers mentioned on the RAC website.

What’s in a Name?

It doesn’t matter which banner your emergency radio service flies under if your abilities match the requirements of the agencies served.

As a group, any emergency radio service organization can only be successful if they have agreements in place with their served agencies, and work with other similar units on a regular basis so they get to know each other’s capabilities. To state it directly, any relationship requires maintenance on both sides in order to continue their success. I have observed relationships come and go on both sides of this equation: between units; and between unit and served agency. When the relationship breaks down, previous mistakes with the other party are remembered for years to come and they take a great deal of time and effort to heal. It is imperative that relationships be maintained so that errors are learned from, then corrected, but not remembered negatively.

Relationships are in a further state of flux as local governments become more self-sufficient with expanded training of staff and revised communications infrastructure. The Alberta provincial health service, which we helped in 2013, understands our abilities but is unable to set up simple infrastructure for us, such as antennas on buildings, due to cost constraints. Such are the realities of dealing with governmental agencies.

Emergency radio services – such as the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES), the Provincial Emergency Radio Communications Service (PERCS), Radio Emergency Associated Communication Teams (REACT) – are all providing a service to someone. In the words of conventional business, this is their value proposition: “I will provide you xyz service in exchange for abc.” Of course for us the exchange abc is non-monetary but could be items like facilities in which to train, meet or hold a Field Day.

In preparing to write this article I spoke with a few different governmental agencies in the province to see where Amateur Radio fits in today and how they view the current relationship. In Alberta the reality is that there is currently room to improve as there is an inconsistent service delivery when compared to other non-governmental groups such as Search and Rescue.

To improve this situation we need to have our team members brought to a consistent skill level by teaching them the basics of the Incident Command System (ICS-100 and ICS-200), Basic First Aid, and how to communicate with and use their equipment. I’ve often thought that in addition to knowing how to communicate the message, Amateurs should know how to get a message out no matter the mode. And this minimum level of skill set needs to be consistent across all parts of the agency served, in this case a provincial government.

The group also needs to have a current skills inventory of its members including, but not limited to, such things as who may be an Engineer, GIS specialist or a heavy machine operator, and also have a clear understanding of who is available and when. Skill sets outside of Amateur Radio increase the level of knowledge of those inside an Emergency Operations Centre or in the field and can help by giving context to a situation. Lastly, training and regular group exercises go a long way towards driving this consistency into any team.

In Alberta the provincial government has been building the Alberta First Responders Radio Communications System (AFRRCS) to tackle the challenges of a lack of inter-agency communications as seen in the 2013 events. While it wasn’t in full production at the time, it was used in the Fort McMurray fires of 2016 and it continues to be rolled out across Alberta. In the view of our provincial government, the AFRRCS has the following backup communication system: first, the Internet; then cellular; then landline; and then Amateur Radio.

Without the improvements outlined earlier, Amateur Radio will become the backup of last resort – and a very niche play at that. We may find ourselves called upon less and less unless we, as a group, change our course.

Personal Reflections

During the floods in 2013, I had many Radio Amateurs on the team who I had never worked with in a leadership capacity prior to the event. They stood beside me in the EOC and at that time I knew little of their capabilities. I asked them a few questions to reflect on the past five years and how the event may have changed them.

Ray Bourne, VE6LG

Q – You lived through it.

A – Yes, I have done others to including a hurricane in Regina, where I assisted with security patrols around damaged commercial buildings and escorted families back into a secured restricted residential area that was very damaged.

Q – I’m interested to hear about what you would do differently in Amateur Radio as a result of your experience.

A – I try to keep a Go-Kit available, vehicle fuel topped, vehicle chargers, etc.

Q – How did your involvement change you, your approach towards your involvement in the hobby?

A – I became more involved with ARES. I took ICS-100 and ICS-200.

Q – Have you furthered your studies?

A – It is on my to do list to take more courses.

Q – Have you gotten involved more, less?

A – Yes, I am more involved. As part of the FARS Technical team, we are improving our facilities to be disaster-proof and have redundant equipment for quick replacement if a repeater fails.

Vince adds: “Since the floods, Ray has been mentoring me in many of the technical aspects of radio. I’m grateful for his ongoing humour, troubleshooting skills and ability to get to the heart of any matter quickly.

Ian Willumsen, VA6IAB

The floods brought into focus the idea that there is both personal proficiency and group proficiency that bears upon the situation. In a personal sense, are there things I could learn formally (for example ICS training), or informally (Advanced classes, CW, better radio operations) that might allow me to be more effective.

There are always products (radio and otherwise) that might be better than I had during the floods that are worth checking out – like a “radio vest” to stop from carrying a handhelds around all the time, or different antennas. Furthermore, as a community of Radio Operators, I think its important to endeavour enabling both others to improve their proficiency and the systems we construct as a community, to offer even better service the next time disaster calls.

Vince adds: “I didn’t really know Ian all that well at the time of the floods as I’d only recently moved back to Alberta. Like today, he was quiet then but strong and confident in his abilities. Since the flood he has worked alongside of me at several Rallysport events.”

Tammy Johnson, VA6TSJ/VA6TSS

The floods of 2013 devastated many. The high waters washed away homes and businesses, and even more tragically took lives. Being a part of the emergency efforts at this critical time impacted me heavily. I saw the great need for Ham Radio operators in a hobby where the median age is climbing. The bottom line is when all modern communications fail, Amateur Radio has its greatest potential for assisting emergency efforts.

Because I saw this first-hand in action I decided to move forward with my hobby. I gained two more levels with my ICS training and also expanded my abilities as an operator. I now have crossband experience that allows a new level of expanded capacity when I combine both my mobile unit and my handhelds. I am a member of ERCSouthAB (an Emergency Response Communications Net hosted by the Mercury Amateur Radio Club), which is now moving forward to expand our scope to include a mobile repeater to assist in greater flexibility to respond to the many natural disasters like the recent fires that devastated the Southwestern corner of the province in the Waterton/Cardston area.

I am profoundly grateful for all the close associations I have made with many different hams over the years, including my two sisters, Melanie Still, VA6MKS, and Nancy Orr, VA6BDJ.

We attend meetings, various exercises, and participate, giving service with our Amateur Radio skills to various non-profit and emergency groups. Special thanks to Jerry Clement, VE6AB, who nurtured a love of ham radio in me in 2010 and continues to mentor me today.

Vince adds: “As with Ian, I didn’t know Tammy all that well at that time. Leading by example, she taught me how to arrive at a site self-sufficient and complete with a 72-hour personal Go-Kit. She opened my eyes up to what self-sufficiency really means in that situation. I have a ways to go to before I am as fully self-sufficient as she was, and I remain inspired by her knowledge, confidence and willingness to do whatever needed to be done during that event.

Epilogue

Change in any situation is natural. Many factors are at play when providing a service no matter what organization you are delivering for. Ensuring that others understand your organization’s value proposition and ability is key. Motivation of volunteers is essential, as they need to feel that their contributions are important to that value proposition or they go elsewhere. Among other things, leadership is about building and maintaining relationships and knowing your team’s capabilities and drawing upon those as required to solve the problem at hand.

Lastly, follow your interests. Not only may you be led someplace new and challenging, but you may learn something and enjoy it at the same time. And isn’t enjoyment what this hobby is all about?

 

Vince’s love of Amateur Radio was instilled by Al D’Eon, VE3AND (SK) in 1969.

Vince “finally” completed his Basic and Advanced exams in 2002 once he learned about Amateur Radio and Community Service volunteer work. Less than a year later he did his CW endorsement having been bitten by the contesting bug and wanting to get on HF. He held VE3LKV from 2008 to 2012. In 2014 he gained his USA Extra class call AI7LK.

Vince is a member of a few clubs and enjoys working with all of them. He regularly volunteers at several events annually and follows his heart about what to learn next; lately it’s repeaters and APRS. He likes operating portable and mobile more than from at home.

Equally at home on a computer or a radio, you’ll find him on both digital and voice modes. He can be found on IRLP node 1483 or on Twitter @vincedeon.