Just as the stream of evacuees from the hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast on Saturday was hitting the outskirts of Marble Falls, a tornado touched down near downtown Bertram.
A busy flea market in the park on the edge of Bertram was full of canopies, trailers, vehicles, and, hundreds of people. The tornado caught them all out in the open, tossing vehicles, people, equipment and tables in all directions. Dozens of people were injured or trapped. The first help to the scene was from the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). Initial search and rescue was undertaken by CERT and triage of the casualties began. The “hams” of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES®) for the Highland Lakes had already been activated to assist with communications regarding the evacuee traffic, and was able to divert a unit to Bertram to provide communications. All telephone, cell phone, and commercial power was disrupted and the hams provided the only means of communication. Numerous casualties were found ranging from the walking wounded to fatalities.
South of Marble Falls on U.S. Hwy 281 the ARES unit had the Highland Lakes Amateur Radio Club’s well-equipped communications trailer deployed as a communications and check-in point to relay special evacuee needs to “Shelter Command” — the Marble Falls police department’s mobile command bus that was stationed at the shelter in the Marble Falls High School.
Communications flowed steadily from Bertram and Highway 281 into the Burnet County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) where another contingent of ARES hams handed off both voice and written messages to EOC officials. Even from the disaster field in Bertram written reports came in from a mobile unit equipped with a computer and the ability to send messages digitally which were printed out by the recipient at the EOC. Detailed triage reports were accurately relayed through the EOC to Seton Highland Lakes where yet another ARES station received the vital information and printed it out. Even before ambulances began to arrive at the hospital personnel there knew what to expect. As local needs were realized by the County Emergency Coordinator, communications were relayed to the State Operations Center for resources to be sent to the area. Ham communications to Williamson and Travis Counties were effected with a liasion there.
Seton realized, even before all patients were inbound from the tornado scene, that their bed capacity was overrun. All commercial communications were still out so the ham operator at Seton communicated by amateur radio to other hospitals in the Cen-Tex area and additional beds were located.
Fortunately, this was a drill conducted by the ARES and CERT teams as part of a statewide Simulated Emergency Test (SET). ARES® works with the county EOC within the framework of the National Incident Management System which is fundamental in all emergency operations, such as Hurricane Sandy which has just hit as this article is being written. The local effort was coordinated by Gil Jones, ARES® Emergency Coordinator (EC) for Burnet and Llano Counties, along with Riley Carruthers who is the Digital CommunicationsEC for those counties. Robyn Richter who is not only a ham but is part of the Marble Falls Area EMS wrote the “patient” descriptions for the triage effort by CERT. The District 8 EC, Richard Chapman who is a member of the local ARES unit, was deployed to the State Operations Center.
This was the first time that the local CERT unit had exercised with ARES® in the annual exercise performed each fall. The first people you are likely to see in a disaster situation will be CERT and ham radio operators.
This exercise is done because when all other communications fail, amateur radio can get through because of its widely dispersed resources, including fixed, portable and mobile stations, and a large cadre of trained operators. By training in exercises with realistic emergency scenarios, skills are honed and waiting for the time that disaster hits. ARES® also undertakes support of many community activities such as triathlons as a means of additional training.
ARES® is part of ARRL, the national association for amateur radio™.
Hams are “home grown” through classes such as that which will be given November 9-10-11 this year at the library in Burnet. See the Highland Lakes Amateur Radio Club website for details.
© 2012 Gil Jones and Highland Lakes ARES