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O N L I N E  E X C L U S I V E

Hams Fill Communications Gaps During Colorado Floods

October 02, 2013


Photo courtesy Ueli Hauser

By Kristen Beckman, Assistant Editor

Public-safety communications networks in Colorado suffered minimal damage and outages during historic flooding in early September, and amateur radio operators made considerable contributions to the disaster’s communications efforts.

Seventeen counties were impacted by flooding caused by storms that dumped more than a foot of rain in parts of the Denver metropolitan area, especially communities north of the city, including Boulder and Larimer counties. Eight people died as result of the flooding and nearly 6,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes. Several major highways were damaged, stranding hundreds of citizens and completely cutting off at least three towns.

"The only damage to the Boulder city/county law enforcement/fire radio networks during the flooding was water leakage at one site that was quickly resolved," said Dean Scott, technical systems supervisor with the Boulder County Sheriff's Office. "Because we run backup on the primary dispatch channels the short term outage was transparent to the user and the repair occurred without interruption to the network."  

“Our statewide Digital Trunked Radio System (DTRS) worked very well during the initial days of the flooding,” said Dave Rowe, Larimer County radio systems administrator. “We did lose one DTRS site due to power and T-1 infrastructure loss. This had minimal effect since it had a small footprint and all residents had been evacuated.”

The city of Lakewood, a west Denver suburb, was also hit by flooding, but its communications equipment and operations were not impacted.

“Lakewood was really very fortunate during the flooding period,” said Steve Davis, public information officer for the Lakewood Police Department. “Other than receiving a very unusual amount of rain for this time of year, we had no known damage or real issues. The creeks and rivers were certainly very swollen, and we did activate our emergency operation center (EOC) one night in anticipation of flooding but never experienced any.”

Hams Fill Communications Gaps

Amateur radio supplemented public-safety networks during flooding response and recovery efforts. More than 60 local Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES) volunteers provided communications functionality at Red Cross shelters and state and local emergency operations centers, according to the American Radio Relay League (ARRL).

ARRL Colorado Section Manager Jack Ciaccia said ARES volunteers were staffing almost all EOCs in the affected areas, providing either voice or packet communications between EOCs and shelters. Amateur radio operators also provided some of the only means of communications out of towns that were completely cut off by flooding, including Estes Park, Lyons and Jamestown.

Amateur radio operators helped coordinate the delivery of supplies by helicopter to stranded citizens, and in one case, helped locate medical supplies needed within a community that could not be reached by outside responders. The group also aided in the evacuations, including 65 school children who were camping when the flooding hit.

With the immediate threat of flooding past, amateur radio operations switched to helping with flood damage assessment. In Boulder County, ARES volunteers rode in county vehicles equipped with mobile ham radio gear set to operate with area repeaters to help with damage assessment efforts.

Ciaccia said Boulder’s ARES group is accustomed to working closely with local law enforcement and responders on a variety of disasters, particularly forest fires, where the group brings digital communications and advanced technologies including video capabilities to help responders monitor and react to incidents.

Boulder benefitted from recent efforts to bolster the network of amateur radio equipment and operators in the area. Ciaccia said a wildfire in the county several years ago convinced some local mountain residents that there was inadequate conventional communications systems available to help citizens know how to evacuate from fires and flooding. As a result, the Boulder ARES group began to deploy a repeater system in the mountain areas west of Boulder consisting of standard VHF repeaters, propane generators, outbuildings and crystals. The project, which so far includes two repeaters with a third repeater planned, was self funded and is credited with saving lives during the flooding.

The group also began recruiting ham operators in the area by offering to teach new users about the technology, help them get their licenses and give them a repurposed wideband radio. In the past year, Ciaccia said 65 new operators have been licensed in the area, and he noted that ham numbers are on the rise nationwide, with more than 750,000 operators licensed.

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