Force of Two: In Depth stories from 2 Puerto Rico volunteers on HamRadioNow

Discussion in 'Amateur Radio News' started by KN4AQ, Oct 28, 2017.

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  1. KG7LEA

    KG7LEA Ham Member QRZ Page

    In Puerto Rico the hams deployed as part of RACES, not ARES. Hams were spread thin supporting PREMA, municipal governments, and the electrical utility. ARES provides support for NGOs where RACES does not. For the local hams ARES was not part of the picture. As things settled down, the Force Of Fifty hams deployed to 14 hospitals including one on Culebra Island (look up where that is).
    KX4O likes this.
  2. KM4WUO

    KM4WUO Ham Member QRZ Page

    From my perspective, it would be entirely reasonable for the ARC (and other NGOs like Salvation Army, Team Rubicon, etc.) to want to:
    - provide Safe and Well transmission capabilities to each of the shelters they are responsible for,
    - provide a method for communicating and coordinating the deliveries of needed supplies to and from those shelters,
    - provide a method for transmitting their daily status and census to PREMA/FEMA,
    - provide a method for transmitting urgent requests to PREMA/FEMA for those things beyond their ability to handle themselves

    In addition, PREMA/FEMA should have had the ability to:
    - provide communications for hospitals to be able to communicate with each other and to PREMA/FEMA
    - provide communications for local public safety agencies like EMS, fire, and police as well as municipal agencies such as the power, water, and sewer departments (remember, there was no running water on the island right after the hurricane)
    - provide communications for assessment teams to relay information in real-time back to the command center
    - provide backup communications for PREMA/FEMA satellite offices for those times when critical communications needs occur during failures of other modes (which happened frequently while I was there)
    - provide a means to communicate and coordinate with the National Guard and DoD units that were deployed in real time (Although many of the PRNG and Army units did not have HF ability but that's a problem unto itself)

    Both PREMA/FEMA and the ARC totally underestimated the scope of the disaster and both they and ARRL did not end up getting sufficient numbers to overcome the complete devastation of the <entire> communications infrastructure. So, they were caught flat-footed and lots of places didn't have comms. Both the volunteer hams and the local hams did a great job, with many of the locals that I met working very long hours even though they themselves were dramatically impacted by the storm. Sending the hams to hospitals was good, but wasn't/isn't the ARC's job, it was PREMA/FEMAs, and in any event the response between the two of them was woefully insufficient. In the case of SHARES, there were only 10 of us so our usefulness was limited by that and by the fact it took us so long to get down there. (I was the first and got there on Oct. 13th, the hurricane hit on September 20). Although, keep in mind, this was the first ever SHARES "deployment" so we were learning as we went.

    In addition, all of the above should have had communications "go kits" with HF and VHF (and some would argue satcom) abilities. Beyond that, they should have "stay alive kits" such that these first responders don't become just another mouth to feed by locals who were unable to deal with their own needs, much less added people. All of them should have had the ability to operate without grid power but few of us did. I brought both a solar panel charger and a Bioenno PowerPack400 that I used the whole time I was there. When we had grid power, I plugged in the wall charger but kept running from the battery. Grid power, as it was being restored, was unstable in the extreme. Two of our team members got power supplies fried from massive power spikes. When I went mobile, I kept the same setup and substituted cigarette lighter adapter for the wall charger and kept running on the battery because the rental car power sockets couldn't handle the current required. Fuel was unavailable for the first week and in some areas for two. So, just having a generator was insufficient. And, in a protracted power outage, stand-by, low duty cycle generators are going to fail if run continuously for weeks (or months) on end (and we saw that in spades down there).

    I've been asked to put together a presentation for our city's EMA folks on what I saw and learned, and what could be done better. Hopefully everyone involved in EMComm will learn from this disaster. Some would say that the PR disaster was unique because of their island isolation and the level of destruction. If one were to consider a severe CME or Kim Jong Knucklehead's ability to lob an EMP inducing nuke that doesn't have to be accurate to cause the power gid to fail entirely either at the regional or national level, it's not so far-fetched all of a sudden.
    KG7LEA likes this.
  3. W0PV

    W0PV Ham Member QRZ Page

    Great comments! Thanks for joining the thread conversation.

    Just one question theme at this time - can you explain the who, how, and why for the decision of when the ARC - ARRL Force hams mission was to be terminated?

    Did this occur in an ESF-2 meeting? Was there a consensus or was it a command? Did a turf war spring up between or within PREMA/FEMA, ARC/ ARRL, or RACES/ARES leadership that expedited the withdrawal of Force personnel?

    Curiously, it would seem from your comments that as has been suspected the departure of the ARC-ARRL Force was premature, there was still an urgent demand for their services. The ARRL made news releases that they had been asked to extend the duration. Then suddenly, POOF, it was reported the mission was ended because SHARES was replacing them. However, that statement was quickly walked-back. Interviews with ARRL Force members indicate that SHARES did not interchange person for person place for place, with them, ie, in remote hospitals. Instead it seems SHARES ops were indeed installed to provide for "Feds talking to Feds", and the ham volunteers just sent packing, with no coordinated hand-off, relapsing some local agencies back into lacking efficient EMCOMM.

    Thanks in advance for any answers, 73 de John - WØPV
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2017
  4. KG7LEA

    KG7LEA Ham Member QRZ Page

    I have contacted and interviewed FoF volunteers and no one knows. ARRL declined my request for information stating that an after action report would be disseminated through "regular channels." Only ARRL and ARC can answer your question.

    The original request was for a three week deployment. For whatever reason this was not renewed by ARC, entirely their call. ARC's satisfaction with the ARRL response is unknown. ARRL indicated that SHARES volunteers would assume these duties, but that did not happen.

    Once the Safe and Well mission was scrubbed on Day One of the FoF deployment(about Day 10 of the recovery) the ARC had comms resources it was not really equipped to deploy. They have their own commercial radios, but these generally are to link ARC elements like feeding stations, shelters, and reunification teams. The FoF hams deployed in missions generally outside ARC's usual functions like fire stations, the dam, and hospitals.
    KX4O and W0PV like this.
  5. KM4WUO

    KM4WUO Ham Member QRZ Page

    I wasn't privy to the decision making process on the ARC side. It could be that they believed they were no longer needed, or they felt the cost to extend their deployment was too high, or that many of the volunteers were taking time away from their real jobs and families and needed to go back home. Many of the ones I spoke with had to take vacation time from their normal work to go deploy. Lots of folks don't have several weeks vacation time they can burn, particularly all at once. It could be the ARC was dissatisfied with ARRL's handling of the mission or it could be something totally different, I can't say because I don't know.

    From the ESF-2 side, there was no direction from them to the hams and very little to the SHARES folks. Again, it appeared the ESF-2 folks there in San Juan didn't understand what capabilities and roles either group could play. They focused primarily on intra-FEMA communications, though eventually they started working others. I also think the ARRL folks genuinely misunderstood what SHARES is and what they were being sent down for. Perhaps they should have familiarized themselves with the information contained here:

    In theory, hams and SHARES should both play a pivotal role early in the disaster, each with a different function and priority even though they both have similar capabilities. Then, as alternative communications are slowly restored, those resources can be redeployed elsewhere, used as backup, and when communications actually stabilize they can be sent home after a job well done. Best I can tell, there was no need for a "handoff" since the functions of both teams were and are different. As to whether the ham job was done when they left, I would say no. As to whether the SHARES mission was complete when we left, again I'd have to say not really. Quite frankly, I felt really bad that I was leaving when so much of the island was still in a shambles. But, I was just shy of 6 weeks away from home and really needed a break and to go home. I think that's true of most of the folks who deployed regardless of function. You can only burn the candle at both ends for so long before it starts impacting both you and your life back home.
    KX4O and W0PV like this.
  6. KG7LEA

    KG7LEA Ham Member QRZ Page

    This is something not addressed in the training I have seen. We are focused on being ready and getting deployed at whatever mission(s) we are presented with. But for how long, particularly in primitive conditions? ARC came up with the three-week Safe and Well mission. Was that based on ARC experience with volunteers? @KM4WUO was out six weeks with SHARES. That's a long time in a primitive environment even if you are still receiving full pay and benefits.

    Just as in our ICS training we are taught to plan for demobilization as soon as we mobilize, so too NGOs need to plan on relief and resupply of volunteers. The hand off can be smoothed with an overlap of deployments, one or two days to get the new people out and up to speed with assignments. Trained and vetted supervisory personnel should travel in advance of the relieving volunteers.

    I will be surprised if ARRL or ARC ever again attempts to deploy another Force of Fifty.
    KX4O likes this.
  7. KM4WUO

    KM4WUO Ham Member QRZ Page

    My observation of FEMA's operations down there was that they were haphazard at best with regard to personnel rotation. This was probably because they'd burned thru so many folks on the previous 3 disasters. By the same token, there were several functions that had 4-5 times as many people as were necessary, contributing to the burn rate. There were also a lot of functions that were being handled by the SCF and other call-ups and it wasn't going to be possible to replace them. My guess is that they assumed the job would be done within 45 days like it usually is on the mainland during a disaster. Problem is, Puerto Rico was a different kind of disaster and FEMA failed to adapt to it. It's also going to take much, much longer to get PR back to a functioning level and it's not clear how long FEMA can support that mission.

    One of our team members had been deployed to dozens of disasters before but as part of a medical contingent. In this deployment, he was a SHARES operator. He indicated that usually a different governmental body is responsible for leading the ESF-2 function. He mentioned that in the past, GSA had that role in most other recent disasters since they have communications specialists and existing contracts with communications providers. He was puzzled why FEMA was given that role in this disaster and felt that FEMA didn't shine in this particular case.

    As for whether ARC, SA, or Team Rubicon will deploy hams again, I would say it is likely but it probably won't be in concert with ARRL. I got the distinct impression that despite issuing glowing press releases, ARC wasn't all that satisfied with the ARRL's handling the whole event as a chance to promote itself rather than to simply support the ARC.
    KX4O and W0PV like this.
  8. KG7LEA

    KG7LEA Ham Member QRZ Page

    FoF Wey Walker K8EAB contributed this home video . At 32:43 you see the FEMA EOC setup. Lots of people.

    In our city the EOC stands up almost monthly for various events so there is a routine to the process. People from different departments and agencies know where to go and what to do. Ham radio volunteers serve in admin and planning roles besides push-to-talk just as they did there in San Juan. Of course, we have never handled anything like Maria.
    KX4O likes this.
  9. W0PV

    W0PV Ham Member QRZ Page

    In the beginning of Wey's video, in the DOC, the ARC field HQ, there appears to be many ARC volunteers that are not part of the FoF hams.

    Did any ARC demobilization or rotation occur before or on Oct 19 that included any non-hams, or did the ARC single out the FoF?

    At the end of the video while Wey is at the airport, it doesn't look like a crowd of ARC people. If the ARC sent other volunteers away as well then it could be just budget management or other protocol. If it was only the hams, then an explanation is still relevant. The ARC ought to be willing to answer this question to anyone who subscribes or contributes to their cause.

    An unfortunate narrative pattern has appeared from accounts and interviews both from those within the FoF and now observers from outside.

    The ARC, probably, and for sure many FoF members, were not appreciative of the penchant of an arrogant few in the ARRL group to focus so much energy into needless real-time ham PR and self-promotion, while instead at times leaving the PTT at PR HQ base abandoned. The obvious conclusion is that this produced dissention and alienation within and between the ARC / ARRL groups.

    Covered up so far in the noise of only glowing post-event accounts out of Newington, that tension may be responsible as the root cause for pushing them apart prematurely in the field, and an issue that ought to be addressed.
    KX4O likes this.
  10. KM4WUO

    KM4WUO Ham Member QRZ Page

    One thing in ARC's defense is that they may have thought three weeks was sufficient to get normal comms back. That's certainly been the case in most other disasters taking only days to get most kinds of regular comms back. Down there, the fact that the <<entire>> communications infrastructure was wiped out simultaneously was something neither they nor anybody else had encountered before.
    KX4O likes this.

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