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The City Journals

City puts old technology to new use for emergency planning

Apr 29, 2019 08:04AM ● By Josh Wood

Volunteer amateur radio operators take part in the 2019 Shakeout drill. (Joshua Wood/City Journals)

By Joshua Wood | [email protected]

Cottonwood Heights put its emergency planning to the test again during its Shakeout drill on April 13. A key element of the city’s plan took center stage that day as volunteer amateur radio operators tested the city’s emergency communications network while simulating a disaster.

The Cottonwood Heights Amateur Radio Club staffed a communications center set up at City Hall and received notifications from throughout the city. Block captains reported on the status of the homes in each block, typically 10 to 15 homes, to communications specialists in each district, who then transmitted the information via radio to the volunteers at City Hall.

The role of radio in a disaster situation is critical. “Everything here assumes that there’s no internet and no cell phones,” said Carlo Cardon, a member of the Cottonwood Heights Amateur Radio Club. “Everything is basically short-wave video. If everything else fails, then this is how we do it.”

During the Shakeout drill, the radio operators stationed at City Hall were tasked with collecting reports from district communications specialists. Using a secure radio channel, they helped emergency managers map out all the locations that needed assistance.

“Our job is to try to gather as much information about what’s going on in the city, say during a major earthquake, as we can and provide it to these folks who will be managing the incident so they’ll help people who are in trouble,” Cardon said.

The radio communications network helps the city coordinate its response to emergency situations. Reports from block captains via district communications specialists are entered into spreadsheets by the radio operators and then mapped out by a GIS mapping specialist at City Hall.

“We’re exercising the city’s ability to receive information at the citizen level,” Assistant Chief of Police Paul Brenneman said. “The map helps me understand where there are issues, where there are not issues. Where can I send and where do I need to send those limited resources?”

Innovative uses of radio were also on display to make the city’s emergency plan more robust. Video feeds relayed via radio waves and projected onto a screen at City Hall showed images from Cottonwood Heights Recreation Center, where a triage center would be established during an emergency. Meanwhile, drones equipped with cameras would also be deployed to give emergency managers a clearer picture of potential damage to roads or structures.

“Rovers and drones will investigate to tell us things like this dam was destroyed or this road is out,” said Tay Omana of the Amateur Radio Club. “We get these live updates, and we’re independent of other networks or power sources. We’re self-sufficient in that way in how we run the network of our communications.”

The city asked residents to hang a ribbon in a conspicuous place on their home, like in a window. The color-coded ribbons are used to communicate the status of each home during an emergency. A green ribbon indicates that everyone within the home is all right. A black ribbon communicates that someone in the home has died. A red ribbon indicates that there is an emergency situation requiring immediate help, while a yellow ribbon states that there is a situation in the home requiring attention, but not immediately.

“Using the map, we would decide what needs to be done and our operations people would decide how to do that, and logistics would get us the stuff to accomplish that,” said Police Support Specialist Julie Sutch.

The communication plan is designed to cover every home in the community to address emergencies during a disaster. Amateur radio, or ham radio, helps make it possible. As Omana said, “These old technologies and the new things that they’ve done with it are really the ways to communicate in an emergency.”