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[Articles Home]  [Add Article]  

Army MARS in Sandy

Bill Sexton (N1IN) on November 30, 2012
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All that radio equipment, but Ron Tomo AAT2BC had to send his situation reports from Long Island N.Y. by Smartphone. A fallen tree smashed his antenna system.

But for its signature line, the Sitrep [situation report] from Army MARS station AAT3BC pretty much typified the grim situation of many Army MARS operators in the waterlogged Northeast coast on the day that Sandy struck:

"Bad hits to my QTH [location]. MARS station AAC2NY down. Multiple antennas down. On generators. All phones, tv, Internet are dead. Running VHF and monitoring USCG 2182."

What made the message exceptional was how Long Islander Ron Tomo, a longtime emergency communicator and hospital IT executive -- and apparently good-natured even in a calamity -- managed to get his message out:

"Sent from Ron's Mind thru his iPhone."

Topping off a historic meteorological one-two punch, the center of Hurricane Sandy battered ashore only a few miles west of Hurricane Irene’s disastrously similar assault on the Northeast only 14 months previously. Irene had been ranked as the 5th costliest hurricane in the last quarter- century. Thanks to Sandy’s merger with a gale out of the west plus its own lethal tidal surge heightened by full moon, Sandy was fated to exceed Irene in suffering and cost.

For this storm Army MARS fielded its brand-new National Operations Net (“Opnet”), a unique interlocked linkage of HF regional nets feeding secure digital traffic to MARS HQ at Ft Huachuca Ariz. and from there the Pentagon when needed. Its core of 13 net controllers across the continent had only a couple months’ to organize. Even so, Net Manager Robert Mims AAA1RD in Taunton Mass. reported that the infant system’s 33-hour activation “provided admirable coverage even during difficult propagation conditions.” Leaders in the storm area agreed.

Despite the mandatory evacuations, flooding of generators and destruction of antennas (if not their homes), a reduced number of operators still succeeded in maintaining backup connections for governmental emergency operations centers in hardest-hit FEMA Regions Two and Three, from Virginia to New York.

Within the disaster zone, the Opnet tied in with the Region Two (N.Y.-N.J.) Command Post AAR2CAC located in an AT&T emergency control center at Middletown N.J. right under Sandy’s path toward Manhattan. “During the height of the storm we could feel the five- story steel and reinforced concrete building shake with the high winds,” said Region Emergency Coordinator Mark Emanuel, AAM2RE, one of four MARS operators there. “Sandy Hook Bay and the open sea are just a few miles away but our building is thoroughly hardened against the elements.” Region Director Dick Corp AAA2RD logged 33 stations active in Region two.

In Region Three (PA. DE. MD. DC VA. WV.) Army MARS established communications for the Maryland EMA to National Guard assets at Easton, MD, on the isolated Delmarva Peninsula. Faced with a shortage of available operators the MD agency also called on MARS operators to plug gaps in the state RACES operation. Region Emergency Coordinator Gary Strong AAM3RE counted 20 stations active. “Some worked consecutive shifts at the state EMA,” he said. MEMA HQ

From a vantage point near New York’s state capital, Region Two’s Dick Corp cited the close coordination with neighboring regions up and down the Atlantic coast. From Maine to Florida (Regions 1-4) oeprators were on duty. “We should all be proud,” he said. “Inter-region cooperation was excellent and the Opnet was extremely functional and did an outstanding job.”

For Corp the storm posed a special challenge. Earlier this year he had merged the separate the N.Y. and N.J. Army MARS formations into a single command since the two states are so closely tied geographically, with the New York City metro area encompassing both. “AAR2CAC (the command station across New York Bay from New York City) was invaluable,” he said. “It was the glue.”

As for Ron Tomo, an experienced net control operator, he rigged up a VHF antenna for contact with nearby hams and emergency responders and put in 68 hours coordinating their emergency traffic.

Member Comments:
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Army MARS in Sandy  
by KG4RUL on November 30, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
"Region Two’s Dick Corp" - That is a new acronym to me.
 
Army MARS in Sandy  
by WV9K on November 30, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Good to see MARS used!
 
Army MARS in Sandy  
by K4IA on November 30, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Story emphasizes the need to have a multiband antenna of some kind in reserve so it can be deployed after all your regular antennas have fallen.
 
RE: Army MARS in Sandy  
by K6AER on December 1, 2012 Mail this to a friend!

Aside from a lot of logistics getting set up, exactly what did the MARS group do that was not handled by a cell phone?

Except for an occasional example where ham radio was the only device in the field, ham radio is a hobby and not a serious communication medium in large scale emergencies. Yesterday I talked with a friend out in the Congo using a Sat. Cell Phone and he sent me pictures of the area 12,000 miles away. Called back an hour later with some information he needed. This is the level of technology needed in an emergency.

I love the hobby and have had my license for over 53 years, but to consider ham radio as a serous communication in emergencies is pure fancy. Up to the 70”s we had a function in communications but our technology has not advanced since then.

You see an accident on the road you use your cell phone. If you used you hamster box under the dash, you first need to get some on the other end who has access to a cell or land line phone. Then you need to get the call to the local agency in the area of the accident. Now you have to explain why this person on the phone 50 miles away is relaying information. By the time the proper agency has been contacted 15 minutes has gone by and the first responders are already on the scene.

Ham radio emergency responders, for the most part, have become a bunch of overweight guys, huffing and puffing, running around with orange vest on trying to get a single channel of communications up and running with no idea how the public service agency will interface with them. They are not cops, firemen or paramedics. Their only skill is they can operate their precious HT.

I don’t doubt you can get help with a ham radio and that will always be the case. In major emergencies the government agencies have taken the attitude - don’t call us we’ll call you. In a large emergency the agencies need bandwidth and mass communication. They don’t handle little slips of paper any more checking the number of charters in the message.

Bottom line is in an emergency ham radio is the last resort but we spend too much time Romanticizing our hobby as something other than what it is.

No excuse me, I have to pick up my orange vest from the laundry.
 
Army MARS in Sandy  
by AA2LD on December 1, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
I have to disagree a bit with some of these comments. I don't know about MARS, but ham radio was very much front and center here on Long Island, first during the cell phone outage and then for the duration of the storm and a week afterwards.
The local nets were invaluable in maintaining communication about up to date info regarding gas, shelters, closings and emergencies. They were organized and selfless in their efforts (www.larkfield.org). The red cross shelters had a ham operator present or nearby. VHF radios, HF wire antennas, and generators were abundant. I was proud of my fellow hams.
I'll never forget what prompted me to get my first ham license: the complete chaos after 9/11 when cell communications were knocked out. This time around, cell towers were intact but the networks were overwhelmed. I won't even mention the possibility of malicious interference.
"When all else fails, there is ham radio." I believe it.
 
RE: Army MARS in Sandy  
by MAGNUM257 on December 1, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
""by KG4RUL on November 30, 2012

"Region Two’s Dick Corp" - That is a new acronym to me.""


???
 
RE: Army MARS in Sandy  
by AA4PB on December 1, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Actually ham radio often works BECAUSE it is 1970's technology for the most part. All the modern commercial stuff depends on a man-made infrastructure of some sort and that can be damaged or overloaded.

In addition, the majority of hams can still string together an antenna or jurry-rig a power source of some type to get back on the air when things go bad. Most government employees cannot - if the system goes down then they are done until the can get services from a maintenance contractor.

 
RE: Army MARS in Sandy  
by K6AER on December 1, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Ah yes the power source.

Most city folks have no generators nor do they store enough gas for more then a few days if they had one.

After your car runs out of gas that source is also gone.

Good luck buying a solar panel after the disaster. All the gas stations are down. Even if they had fuel with out electricity they can't pump gas.

No gas delivery's will take place for weeks. This is the price you pay to live in a controlled paradise.

Bottom line is most hams even if they could Jerry rig something have not thought through the process of a large scale interruption of basic services. How to live with out government assistance for 30 days.

Best you can do is hope to catch an evacuation ride out of the area.

This is the trade off when you depend on local government for all your basic needs.

In the county we have wood for stoves, generators, 1000-2000 gallons of Propane, a couple hundred gallons of gas for the vehicles, food for the animals and three freezers full of food and a large pantry.

We get tornadoes and heavy snow and get isolated from commercial power sources all the time. Your neighbors and yourself help each other. We use our tractors to plow out to the main highway if necessary.

I would never give up my lifestyle out in the country.




 
RE: Army MARS in Sandy  
by W0DLR on December 1, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
I never did hear any traffic on the ham bands from Sandy.

I did notice a couple nights ago HF was practically shut down from the sun spots, on about all HF bands.

I did however have a 30 minute cell phone conversation with my son with no interruption of service.

I'll take my chances with my cell phone anytime over ham radio. Its just a hobby, nothing more.
 
Army MARS in Sandy  
by AB9TA on December 1, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
To paraphrase the ARRL: "When Ham Radio Fails, Smartphones work".

One thing hams consistently overlook is that the commercial services, especially the Public Safety radio systems have been getting much better at surviving disasters.
Hardened facilities, generators, better training of communications personnel, transportable communications systems, interoperable radios, and backups-to-the-backups mean that these systems are available more often when they're really needed.

Nothing is 100%, but they're getting better and better as time goes on and lessons are learned and applied. And this progress will continue as time goes on.

Ham radio simply cannot carry the huge amount of voice and data traffic that professional dispatchers using modern trunked radio and data systems can, especially the amount generated during large scale incidents.

By the way, ham radio is NOT infrastructure independant, we still need the power grid, for example.. And what damages the commercial systems is just as deadly to hams; lighting, high winds, icing, flooding, loss of power, etc..

While ham radio will always be a useful auxillary communications method during disasters, it's not really a backup to the main communications systems.

As hams we should really be careful to not over-promise what we can or can't do.

73!
Bill AB9TA
 
RE: Army MARS in Sandy  
by FLEX28 on December 1, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
OK, so with a Sat. phone I can pay $ 140.000 a year to maybe use once and it still goes out in an emergency. Cell phone , $ 600 at $ 50/ month , internet $ 30-50 month or $ 360-600 / year, other "wireless" devices the same and...during IKE in Houston all the above (and land lines) were all down. FEMA was still gettinh people snarled up in traffic jams and whining about blocked roads. Locals were about the same or spread too thin to matter. I disn't see a single government person for over 3 days, most for a week. Looters were up and running, neighbors out of food and medicine and no power or water for several days. Some had no shelter either. Sailboats blocked the bay road, trees the side roads and water the highways. Hmmmm... thank God one neighbor who had every radio known to man and knew how to use them. With my generator, water supply and food supply PLUS his radios I'd say we made out OK. During 911 my brother was working at the Capitol in DC. Every phone line was jammed. He contacted our mother via 2 hams and told us he was alright. Outdated hobby ? Not in my experience.
 
RE: Army MARS in Sandy  
by WA6MJE on December 2, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
While I agree that most first responders, and public safety entities have adequate redundant communication systems these days, I disagree that there is no longer any place for amateur radio in major emergency situations.

It is clear after Sandy that major disruptions in cell communications can be expected regularly somewhere in our country. What about the communications needs of the public at large? Thousands if not millions of people will be left without any form of communication somewhere each time catastrophe strikes. I do not want to be one of them. I can sustain communications over any HF to UHF ham band indefinitely for my family. With my QRP rigs, and foldable 54 watt solar panel, and 100ah batteries power is no problem. With NVIS antennas, repeaters are not needed for me to contact outside of my community. Everything packs up and can be easily moved My gear is part of my personal survival plan, and I would not feel comfortable without it.

I think that the amateur community should plan more for meeting the communication needs of the private sector, rather than the first responders and public sector.

What if the local amateur radio clubs built a relationship with community homeowner associations, so that in an emergency, each association would be provided with a point of communication for their members so that simple homeowners would have a way of communicating with loved ones, calling for help, or simple things like finding a way to get their prescription medication filled when they are about to run out. Such a communication scheme for neighborhoods would provide a service in the community that is not existent, and very necessary.

I am all set, but what about my neighbors? They are not. I would willingly help them, but if this concept were part of an organized effort by amateur radio, the private sector would be much safer.

So no, I do not agree that amateur radio emergency communications no longer has any place in the scheme of things. I am comfortable that my equipment is available for my family, and would not feel comfortable without it. My cell phone can become worthless in a heartbeat, my ham radios will always get the job done for me. There is a place for those hams interested in serving during emergencies to help during emergencies at the level of every neighborhood, every condo project, every apartment building and so on. In an organized way, there would be no reason the public sector would not have some form of communication nearby to fill the gap until the cell system recovered.
 
Army MARS in Sandy  
by WA2E on December 3, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
I was one of the lucky ones in central NJ and in my town. We lost food and had no power for nearly 7 days but no damage to our property. I had a small inverter and batteries to recharge small devices. I was able to use my HT and cellphone until the celltower and repeater backup batteries died. Point being given a long enough power outage cellphones won't work either. Strangely, never lost the landline and was able to get on the internet with DSL for a limited time each day thanks to the UPS.
 
RE: Army MARS in Sandy  
by K1DA on December 5, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Cell sites typically have a 2 hour battery backup these days instead of a generator, and in difficult times the sites often get overloaded with traffic . A small generator isn't a big cost compared to what you "gotta have" to get on HF, with a " brand name" antenna out to the back fence. We were on the fringe of the storm and the "no service" message was common.
 
RE: Army MARS in Sandy  
by KU7I on December 7, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Mike,
Being forward deployed right now with the US Naval Hospital in Japan I can not agree more with your comments Mike. I love ham radio. But it really has no place today in emergency and disaster management. It's heyday was indeed up to and including the 1970s but no more. It remains a most gratifying hobby though.
 
RE: Army MARS in Sandy  
by KU7I on December 7, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Referring to K6AER and the group.
 
Army MARS in Sandy  
by AG2AA on December 8, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Several of my co-workers were deployed to nassau county to help get their public safety radio system back on line. in that case, the "backhaul" network connecting the various sites had failed (fiber and T-1) so even if a site had power it was useless. same with the cell sites. the first thing they did was get a bunch of HAMS to put up NVIS antennas at several county sites, and then relay out to field units. Real, live police, fire, and EMS traffic over ham gear. if that's not useful enough for you, i'm not sure what is.
 
Army MARS in Sandy  
by AG2AA on December 8, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Several of my co-workers were deployed to nassau county to help get their public safety radio system back on line. in that case, the "backhaul" network connecting the various sites had failed (fiber and T-1) so even if a site had power it was useless. same with the cell sites. the first thing they did was get a bunch of HAMS to put up NVIS antennas at several county sites, and then relay out to field units. Real, live police, fire, and EMS traffic over ham gear. if that's not useful enough for you, i'm not sure what is.
 
Army MARS in Sandy  
by AG2AA on December 8, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Several of my co-workers were deployed to nassau county to help get their public safety radio system back on line. in that case, the "backhaul" network connecting the various sites had failed (fiber and T-1) so even if a site had power it was useless. same with the cell sites. the first thing they did was get a bunch of HAMS to put up NVIS antennas at several county sites, and then relay out to field units. Real, live police, fire, and EMS traffic over ham gear. if that's not useful enough for you, i'm not sure what is.
 
RE: Army MARS in Sandy  
by KU7I on December 9, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Very good example Steve. Ciao!
 
Army MARS in Sandy  
by KC8MZW on January 7, 2013 Mail this to a friend!

Very interesting comments. But one thing that is being overlooked here is that Army MARS is not Ham Radio.
 
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