22 April 2018

A Hurricane Post-Mortem

The 2017 hurricane season is on the books as the most extensive, and the most expensive, season on record for the Atlantic and Caribbean basins. Mother Nature cut loose with a series of storms that hit just the right land areas at just the right angle and at just the right intensity to cause catastrophic damage from the Caribbean to well up into the southeastern United States. Two storms in particular, Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, caused widespread damage across the Gulf Coast states and Puerto Rico.

How bad was it? This satellite photo taken on 8 September 2017 shows three storms racked and stacked
 to do damage. Left to right they are Hurricanes Katia, Irma and Jose. The middle storm, Irma, ended up
 stomping up the Florida peninsula and then working its way up into Georgia, clobbering south and western
Georgia (including the Atlanta area) before finally running out of steam somewhere up in Tennessee 

Today we'll talk about one particular storm - Hurricane Maria - and the impact is had on the island of Puerto Rico and the emergency communications lessons learned in the aftermath of the storm. There is a lot of talk in the Amateur Radio community about the desperate calls for Amateur Radio operators, both on the island and here on the mainland, to handle emergency and health and welfare traffic. Amateur Radio operators from across the US ended up deploying to support a wide variety of relief agencies like the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, FEMA and even the Dept. of Homeland Security. In some cases Amateur Radio operators deployed with just the shirts on their backs and 'fell in' on equipment already in-place, other times they deployed with donated gear. In one well known instance the ARRL partnered with Icom to put together 'package sets' of HF and VHF radios that volunteers organized by the ARRL took on the plane with them into Puerto Rico to support the Red Cross. And in some instances, like the SHARES volunteers that deployed to support the Dept. of Homeland Security, Amateur Radio operators hauled their own personal radio gear down into the disaster area to provide communications interoperability between government and non-government agencies.

Most of the glowing reports of Amateur Radio support are third party and have been filtered through the public relations arms of the various organizations involved - the ARRL, the Red Cross, etc. So of course the stories are positive. But I come from the military, where no holds barred AARs are the norm. The Army dislikes repeating past mistakes, so AARs, particularly small unit AARs, can be brutally honest. So what bothers me is that I've seen only one AAR of any value come out of a communications agency directly involved in relief efforts. This is the after-action report done by the ARRL, and it's quite good in its honesty and recommendations for improvement.

This post was inspired by the fact that the 2018 hurricane season opens in just a month (1 June) and by a very interesting real-time forum discussion between an Amateur Radio operator named Planemaker who deployed to Puerto Rico in October 2017 to support the DHS under the SHARES program, and fellow Amateur Radio operators back on the mainland who were trying to maintain communications with him. The discussion was hosted on the ham radio section of the AR15.com forum - one of the busiest firearms, survival and disaster preparedness forums on the internet. The thread is titled 'Heading to Puerto Rico With My Radio. Wish Me Luck' and runs for seven pages, starting with the Planemaker's announcement that he's been activated and closing with a very comprehensive one-man AAR. You may have some political qualms about reading a forum thread on a pro-gun site, but all the discussions are actually very professional and tightly focused on the conditions and communications challenges on the ground in Puerto Rico, in real time. The AAR comments start on page 6, but the entire thread is worth reading through as it gives a great overview of the daily communications challenges that Planemaker faced. His observations and evaluations all ring true, and they ring true not just for Amatuer Radio operators deploying to austere environments, but for those of us who just need to hunker down and shelter in-place yet keep communications up and running.

I've summarized both Planemaker's comments and some inferences I gleaned from reading through the forum posts. I think these are observations and lessons any emergency communicator can learn from:

1. Digital Modes
  • Winlink proved to be somewhat fragile, mainly because it does not have a weak signal mode. When band conditions were poor, which was about all the time, Winmor (the soundcard interface for Winlink) had a lot of trouble making and maintaining connections. Agencies using PACTOR modems had much greater success utilizing Winlink
  • Fldigi was the standard digital comms software suite, so familiarity with Fldigi was deemed essential
  • Weak signal modes like FT8 and Olivia seemed to be the most reliable way to go for passing short messages, but even those were iffy depending on the time of day and antennas used
  • Unattended digital modes were important. The ability to park the radio on a coordinated frequency and mode and log all activity for off-line review was a huge time and effort saver
2. Antennas
  • No one antenna setup or design worked 100% of the time. Planemaker's team used dipoles, verticals and end-fed wires. All had their pluses and minuses depending on band conditions, location and local RFI (which was a huge problem). In general, vertical antennas were worse, tuned dipoles were best
  • The ability to re-rig and improvise antenna setups was one of the keys to success. If something doesn't work reconfigure and try again, and keep trying until the signal gets through
  • A simple MJF manual tuner became one of the 'hero' pieces of equipment because it could tune just about any antenna it was hooked up to and could be used with any radio
  • An antenna analyzer proved to be a critical piece of gear as it allowed the team to create home-brew antennas and test for resonance before deploying them to communications sites that didn't have tuners available
  • In many cases horizontal NVIS HF setups were the only thing that got the signal from village to village. Puerto Rico has very dissected terrain, so VHF point-to-point without the use of repeaters is virtually impossible. Most repeaters/towers were either heavily damaged or destroyed during the hurricane, and those few that survived where quickly over-saturated with traffic. For many remote towns & villages HF comms via NVIS was the only reliable 'reach-back' system
3. Computers & Software:
  • Arriving on-site to support a disaster is a lousy time to start loading software (like Fldigi), getting it configured and then trying to learn to run it. Make sure your computers have the necessary software installed and configured for the radios you will be using, and make sure you have at least basic knowledge of how the software works before the disaster strikes
  • If you are 'falling in' on an agency-provided computer be aware that the agency may not want your software on their computers, regardless of how mission critical it is. Also, IT personnel or local computer administrators (they guy with the admin password and the authority to make configuration changes on your computer) will likely be hard to find and badly over-worked. Good computer skills are a must
4. Power
  • Power is a precious commodity in disaster situations, and radios (and computers) are useless without power. Planemaker ended up relying on his LIon battery pack and solar charger far more than he thought he would, and he didn't plan for enough solar panel capacity to account for the cloudy conditions in Puerto Rico. Even the response agency sites with 'reliable' generator systems experienced frequent outages due to gas shortages, poor generator maintenance or, in one case, the generator simply disappeared into the island interior
  • There's power, and then there's power. Poorly maintained generators, brownouts, spikes, overloads, shorts and ground faults and unexpected outages played havoc with electrical systems and ended up frying a number of items. If your systems (radio or laptop) can run on DC then use that as much as possible. Otherwise, make sure your critical equipment is shielded from RFI, well grounded and connected to a surge suppressor. Unplug when not in use!
5. Supported Agencies
  • Planemaker was frankly shocked at how 'unready for HF' most federal agencies are, particularly the US military. It seems that federal agencies have moved wholesale to VHF for local comms and SATCOM systems for long haul communications. If there is an HF capability left in the US military force structure, it wasn't to be found in Puerto Rico. This became a critical issue as the available satellite communications circuits were quickly overloaded. The stopgap remedy of putting commercial satellite phones in the hands of elected officials, administrators and other key people also had drawbacks since nobody had phone lists (mayor A couldn't call mayor B for assistance because A didn't have B's phone number). Plus, to make or receive a call the user had to be standing outside with a clear view of the sky. 
  • The Puerto Rico Army National Guard dug out some old HF radios but had no idea how to use them, meaning they had no way to operate on the MARS or SHARES nets that were handling traffic. Planemaker ended up giving classes on HF theory and helping them get these radios back on the air. The bottom line here is, I think, don't expect the US military to have any deep or extensive expertise in HF communications
  • Don't assume a supported agency knows what to do with you once you arrive. Part of your job may be figuring out for yourself where your skills and talent best fit the need
  • Frequency coordination between agencies was virtually non-existent. This left the Amateur Radio operators to figure it out for themselves. Again, don't assume the supported agencies understand their responsibility in this
6. Equipment

We'll leave aside any discussion of specific radio systems. Everything seemed to work from that perspective. Instead we'll focus on specific issues that Planemaker brought up.
  • PACTOR vs. Signalink. The clear winner here was the PACTOR modem. It offered far greater reliability and throughput than the Signalink being driven by Winmor. The downside? Cost - and it's a huge downside
  • Coax. You can never have enough coax, and it needs to be the lightest and thinnest needed to get the job done. And it needs to be pre-made lengths with connectors
  • Connectors and adapters. Like coax, you can never have enough connectors or adapters. In the Amateur Radio world we generally stick with PL-259/SO-239 setups, but if you need to support military or government systems you'll be dealing with NMO, BNC, and a whole soup-sandwich of connector types. Bring lots and lots of connectors. And don't forget about adapters - barrel connectors, BNC-to-PL-259, SMA-to-BNC, 'gender benders', etc. The golden rule is, even if you don't think you'll need it, you will
  • Anderson Power Poles. If your power connections are via Anderson Power Poles then you'll need a way to make new connectors, patch cables, etc. Bring along a bag of connectors and a crimping tool
  • Ferrite and common mode chokes. Most of the field offices Planemaker worked from suffered from crippling RFI, often traced to generator or wiring issues. This will be a common problem in any disaster scenario as most consumer grade generators are poorly grounded/shielded. To get any communications out he ended up having to 'choke' just about all of his power and feed lines.
  • MARS mods. It sounds like Planemaker was a licensed MARS operator or otherwise had authorization to operate on the MARS frequencies (via SHARES perhaps?), but his HF rig did not have the MARS modification installed. If you are going to operate on the MARS frequencies get the mod done before heading out to the disaster zone
  • Corrosion. The high, salty humidity in Puerto Rico played havoc on any unprotected metal in just a matter of weeks. This meant constant maintenance on antenna setups and the near mandatory use of stainless components. While we don't have the high salt issue here in Atlanta, we do have the humidity issue. Check your connectors for corrosion and water intrusion every few months
I think the biggest point I take away from this review is the importance of good digital communications skills. But it also leaves open the question - just what digital modes and software will your supported agency be using (if any)? What this means is, as Planemaker says, you'll need to be 'semper gumby' (always flexible) 😄

So just who is 'Planemaker'? Turns out he's Mike Logan, KM4WUO from Chesapeake, VA. In December 2017 he gave a talk on his experience to the Chesapeake Amateur Radio Emergency Service group. Here's the video. Highly recommended:

W8BYH out

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