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Report on Pocatello ARC Eclipse Event Planning Meeting

PARC Repeater

My wife (Natalie, KG7EEZ) and I (Joe, KF7NWA) attended the Eclipse Event Planning Meeting held at ISU by the Pocatello ARC last night. Here are the notes and observations I took.

Eclipse Event Impacts

  • The City is estimating a “realistic” 68,000 influx of people to the Pocatello area. Other organizations have estimated 3-5 million, but the City’s estimate is probably more accurate.
  • The City is assuming that there will be 200% – 300% increase in cellular usage, which will “swamp” the networks and render cellular communications “unusable”. PARC reported that over the last two years, during the fireworks display in Idaho Falls, the cellular network was down.
  • PARC observed that “this might be the first time in this century where HAMs will live up to their reputation” for providing emergency communications.

PARC Plan

  • Pocatello area repeaters will remain “open to the public” during the timeframe around the event. Idaho Falls is reportedly planning on closing their repeaters to the public during the event for dedicated Net Control traffic.
  • Pocatello area repeaters will operate without the PL tone to make the repeaters easier to access for HAMs not familiar with the area.
  • Formal Net Control to begin operation “around 9am on the 20th” and run around the clock until “around noon on the 22nd”.
  • Formal Net Control will operate out of John’s house on the hill. It’s expected that travel to his location will be significantly impacted due to the I-15 off ramp at Center Street, which is expected to be jammed.
  • Primary repeater will be 147.360+ (again, traditionally with PL 100, but operating without PL during the Net)
  • Secondary repeater is 147.060+ (which is solar powered and battery-limited, so try not to use it because it may go offline with heavy use) and 147.520 is their simplex frequency for the area
  • Formal Net Control has been issued a 700MHz “walkie” to speak directly into the EOC (rather than having HAMs at the EOC).

PARC Recommendations

  • If your station is an HT (or mobile which is battery powered), keep your transmissions short and concise to conserve battery life
  • Have extra batteries
  • Have a way to charge your HT/Mobile, or run it on line power when possible
  • “We are not the police, we don’t need to be out looking for things”

Other Notes

  • Be prepared! Full gas tank (if the cellular networks are down you probably won’t be able buy gas – or anything else – unless you have cash, and may not be able to do so even if you do), plenty of water, food, batteries, shade, etc.
  • The hospital and local news station are coordinating their own communications plans, some involve HAMs
  • Rumors about IDOT turning “I-15 into all NB traffic before the event and all SB traffic after the event” are false – traffic will operate just as it does now
  • I-15 NB/SB south of Pocatello is under construction and limited to one-lane in each direction
  • I-15 NB/SB from Tremonton through Brigham City is under construction and limited to one-lane in each direction
  • Travel from Idaho Falls to SLC is estimated to be >8 hours on the day of the event
  • Texting may work when cellular calling does not, HOWEVER, many of today’s “texting” methods do not use SMS (“traditional” text messaging) and instead use the data networks for MMS, Facetime, Google Hangouts, Google Voice, and other “text-based messaging”) – it’s anticipated the data networks won’t be functional either.
  • Cellular data on the I-15 corridor from Tremonton to Pocatello isn’t great. I observed that my connections dropped to EDGE on both AT&T and T-Mobile. Cricket, Metro PCS, Boost, and others are “MVNOs” which operate on these two networks, so plan on the same with those services as well. (I did not test Verizon or Sprint.)

Possible Scenarios where HAMs could be useful

  1. Lost person (child/member of party): nothing panics a parent than losing a child in a crowd. HAMs can be a source of communication to report a lost person to centralized Net Control and aid in reunion.
  2. Minor Vehicle Accident: lots of people on the road looking for parking means there’s a higher chance of people bumping into others. Though we are not “the police”, HAMs can be used to report these incidents to Net Control, who can report to the EOC and receive instructions to relay to the motorists (take pictures, exchange insurance, move along; pull vehicles off the road and await a Peace Officer, etc.). Again, we are not the police, but can serve to free up those valuable resources by relaying their instructions.
  3. Major Vehicle Accident: report of time, location, injuries, etc. so appropriate help can be prioritized and dispatched.
  4. Fire: with cars possibly pulling off on the side of the road, hot engines and catalytic convertors could spark fires. A small fire and get out of hand quickly and needs to be reported to the Net (for relay to EOC) as quickly as possible.
  5. Other Medical Emergency
  6. “Mundane Communications”: a non-HAM might want to tell a family member they won’t make it home as scheduled and will stay over another night or two. As HAMs we can use WinLink or even APRS to send emails and text messages through the internet and cellular systems (outside the impacted area). Most of the public doesn’t know this. Many HAMs don’t know this.

Potential “Holes” in the Plan

  • If cellular is indeed “down” or otherwise unusable (whether that’s a total or just significantly impacted), there is nothing currently in place for a non-HAM to know about how to find/contact/use the HAM community to request emergency communications
  • No data communications services were discussed. No Packet, no Broadband Ham Net (HSSM-Mesh), and APRS wasn’t mentioned at the meeting. HOWEVER, PARC is requesting that if you’re in the area, that you “have your APRS on”
  • No formal secondary repeater was defined, nor the plan to switch traffic between the two/three repeaters. This may not be needed, and if needed may be handled at the time when the need arises.
  • No formal secondary location for Net Control was defined in case there is an issue at the primary location.

My Recommendations

After having a night to “sleep on it”, here are my thoughts and recommendations for a similar event in the future:

  1. In order for people (non-HAMs) to know that we are here and available to be used for emergency communications, they have to know where to find us.
  2. If the cellular networks are down, their “smartphones” can’t be relied on for mapping/navigating.
  3. Where would people “go for help”?
    1. Police/Fire/Hospital (Public Services) are obvious locations: Do we have HAMs there to serve as the first-line of communication, or do we rely on the Public Services to provide this first line? If so, do we have sufficient interplay with them to adequately “communicate”?
    2. City offices/buildings (town hall, etc.): If someplace looks official, whether it’s a historic building or not, people will probably seek it out.
    3. Antenna clusters: if a non-HAM can’t communicate, will they look up and see antennas, and naively go there to “try to get a better signal”? They are easy to see from a distance.
    4. Church Houses: churches of all denomination typical help people in need, will people seek them out in this type of emergency?
    5. Areas where people gather (parks, malls, stadiums, city centers): the logic here is that if there are a lot of people there, “there must be ~someone~ who can help!”)

In that type of scenario:

  • Do we have signage (“COMMUNICATIONS”, “HAM RADIO”, etc.) which can communicate to the (perhaps panicked) public that one of our stations is the place to go to get this type of help?
  • Can that signage be seen above a crowd and understood by people in that crowd?
  • Do we have enough personnel at those stations to be effective on the radio AND effective communicating with individuals requesting our help?
  • Do we know where those stations should be located (1) so the public can instinctively find us, and (2) so we can effectively communicate via voice (Net Control), digital (WinLink, APRS)? Do we (should we?) have other digital systems (Packet, Broadband Hamnet) in place to reduce the “chatter” on voice frequencies?

If you have questions for PARC, or would like to volunteer or participate, their next net is Sunday at 8am on 147.360+ (if you’re in the area or can hit it) and their website is www.pocatelloarc.org.

Written By:
joe

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