Building a Radio System to Keep the Red Cross in Touch

By Gordon Williams

IMG_0877.1When disaster strikes, nothing is more important to keeping all responders functioning as a team than solid, dependable radio communications. When disaster threatens to disrupt conventional means of communication as cell phones and landlines–as a Cascadia event might do–the need for a high-quality radio network becomes downright critical. Continue reading

Seattle Red Cross Communications Team Supports Continuity of Operations

By J. B. Hall, KF7GVZ, Drill and Events Coordinator

Communications that are essential to Red Cross operations depend on infrastructure that is vulnerable to disruption in emergencies. Both telephone and Internet use local physical infrastructure that can be damaged by disaster, and can be overloaded by increased demand during response to disaster. The American Red Cross has a cadre of volunteers who have made themselves available to help bridge this gap in communications. They are the Amateur radio operators who form the Seattle Red Cross Communications Team.

The Communications Team was out in the stormy weather on Saturday, January 11, exercising the techniques they would use to maintain communication in the region and to the rest of the world. This included operating the radio room in the Seattle Chapter headquarters and establishing a remote communications site in Newcastle.

Communication Trailer Crew ready to deploy.  From left: Casey Hickerson, AE7SL; Brian Shaw, KE7CNM; Brian Drake, N7BKD; and John Carscadden, W7AFX

Communication Trailer Crew ready to deploy. From left: Casey Hickerson, AE7SL; Brian Shaw, KE7CNM; Brian Drake, N7BKD; and John Carscadden, W7AFX

The Seattle Radio Room is equipped with radios that can communicate locally, nationally and internationally without benefit of local land-line connections. During Saturday’s exercise our team communicated with stations from Oregon to British Columbia in an international exercise known as CrossBorder 2014. This was accomplished using radios that rely on line-of-sight communications that communicated through radio stations known as “repeaters” that relay signals from strategic locations. In this case a repeater on Lyman Hill near Bellingham, owned and operated by local Amateur radio operators, was able to conduct voice communication with stations from Oregon to British Columbia.

At the same time our team was establishing and maintaining communications in the local area and with the Mount Rainier and Olympic Peninsula Chapters using other Amateur radio repeaters. Local and Olympia contacts were made using a repeater on Cougar Mountain, and Olympic Peninsula contacts were made using a repeater at Blynn lookout, between Sequim Bay and Discovery Bay on the Olympic Peninsula.

Repeaters themselves are subject to damage and overload in emergencies. For that reason our team maintains the ability to establish a remote communication station that can serve the same purpose. In Saturday’s exercise they deployed a Communication Trailer to the Golf Club at Newcastle. This club is located on the west slope of Cougar Mountain in a position that overlooks the Puget Sound region.  Line of sight communication can be achieved from “Vancouver to Vancouver” using this site. The team set up the trailer and its radios at Newcastle to establish regional voice radio communications, and linked this communications capability to the Seattle Radio Room.

Seattle Radio Room Crew, from left: Steve Tivel, N7CLF; Susan Matthews, KF7RTF; and Kathy Shuman, KF7TTM.

Seattle Radio Room Crew, from left: Steve Tivel, N7CLF; Susan Matthews, KF7RTF; and Kathy Shuman, KF7TTM.

There is more to communications than voice, and there is a need to communicate outside of the region. To satisfy those needs, the team deployed a ViaSat Surfbeam® 2 Portable Terminal for satellite communications. This terminal, a new national American Red Cross asset, has been placed with our Chapter. The terminal communicates with a geostationary satellite to provide a broadband Internet connection that is independent of local Internet infrastructure. The team set up the portable terminal and achieved the Internet connection in spite of the windy and rainy conditions.

ViaSat dish setup with ballast buckets, with Dave Hersey, KE7PBA and John Carscadden, W7AFX.

ViaSat dish setup with ballast buckets, with Dave Hersey, KE7PBA and John Carscadden, W7AFX.

A different technique was used to establish regional email communications. An Amateur radio system called WinLink 2000 is a radio messaging system in which an email message is originated from an amateur radio station running appropriate hardware and software, is transmitted by radio to a Radio Mail Server (RMS) Gateway that relays this email message into the Internet. The team deployed a portable RMS station with the Communications Trailer to Newcastle and used it to handle significant amounts of exercise email traffic. The combination of the portable RMS and the ViaSat terminal enable us to handle email traffic from any station within radio range of the Newcastle site to any email addressee on the Internet.

The Seattle Communications Team conducts these exercise periodically and welcomes other Red Cross staff and volunteers to come with us to observe. Sometimes the weather is even nice!