East Leinster Amateur Radio Club have had a Plane Crash!

OK, it was only a pretend crash, but it was a great scenario for a training exercise. The East Leinster Amateur Radio Club has been out practicing again – remember our “Black Sky” event earlier this year! This time the project was a bit more adventurous. We got together with the Glen of Imaal Mountain Rescue Team (MR) and with Wicklow Civil Defence (CD) to run a combined operation to practice and hone our skills with simulated emergency communications. We also had a guest observer from the Wireless Communications Laboratory at the Tyndall Institute with us.
The Glen team responded to an imaginary small aircraft crash in the Ow Valley (just south of Lug na Coille). This carefully chosen location near Aughavannagh had no mobile phone signal, no Tetra radio signal and was very definitely out of line-of-sight for VHF signals.

The background to the exercise was to simulate the failure of the Tetra radio system operated by the emergency services, and to assess the feasibility of using HF in an NVIS configuration for Non-Line of Sight communication links as a back-up to Tetra in multiple locations.

Our plan was to use HF NVIS to connect the “crash” site with Laragh Mountain Rescue Base and with the Civil Defence location in Greystones to co-ordinate their work. We also had another ELARC team located near Donard on the western side of the Wicklow mountains simulating the role of Coastguard for a mock helicopter callout.

Training Goals

As with our previous exercise this drill was a Scripted, Directed Net with some specific training goals:
  • Improve our skills with NVIS on 40m and 80m
  • Improve operator message handling skills.
  • Practice working with the emergency services.
  • Gain experience with Net operating procedures.
  • Operate independently in a remote mountainous environment with no infrastructure, using only battery power.

Briefing

The combined teams assembled at the Mountain Rescue Base for a briefing before the drill commenced. The briefing outlined several individual objectives for each HF operator:
  • Stay safe and healthy during the drill.
  • Maintain good situational awareness of their environment and radio equipment.
  • Get on the air and stay on the air.
  • Liaise with the MR and CD teams and to integrate into their communications systems.
  • Fully participate in the drill, following the directions of the Net Controller and Drill Coordinator.
  • Contribute to the drill debrief and give constructive feedback with the goal of improving the club’s standard operating procedures for portable operations and message handling.
  • The MR and CD teams were to work as close to a real event as possible and to observe and comment on ELARCs work.

Drill Execution.

After the briefing the teams dispersed to the various operating sites, Noel (EI7FRB) from GOIMRT and Michael (EI6IRB) from ELARC had set up 40m and 80m dipoles at the base, however the QRM at that location made the station inoperable. The Base station was hastily moved to Roundwood, where Micheal’s Clansman C319 and Noel’s Icom IC 7300 fed a G5RV mounted in the trees by climber Tallis Dixon from MR. This was a lower noise environment and communications were soon established. First lesson learned!

Meanwhile Glen of Imaal Mountain Rescue Team members Robert and Sandra Power got to the Incident Site while Brendan Beirne worked with Frank (EI8HIB ELARC) to set up a radio base using the MR team’s Incident Command Vehicle – a fully equipped base on wheels with all the radio and computer resources they need, except for HF radio. Frank set up the HF station (Yaesu FT891 and a homebrew half wave horizontal dipole) and co-ordinated VHF comms with the team higher up on the hill at the crash location. At this stage the power for the VHF system generated QRM on HF, even though it was quiet on VHF so the power supply to the VHF radios had to be re-worked to allow for reduced QRM on HF. Second lesson learned.

Down in Greystones, at the Civil Defence Base, Michael Carroll, the County Civil Defence Officer had organised a support team of Simon Sterne, Owen Carroll, Jack Dempsey, Caimin Carroll and Anthony Mac Donald who were working with the communications, and also providing power from batteries and backup generators, and even refuelling the comms team with sausage sandwiches. Sean Tolan from the GOIMRT ably assisted in liaison with CD and MR Base.

Dom (EI5IAB) set up his (ICOM IC7100 and a homebrew dipole) and established a reliable HF link between the Greystones CD Base and the other stations in the Net. The close proximity of metal buildings in the area presented a challenge to the HF station, however Dom adapted to the difficult situation and maintained a link between CD Greystones and the Net. Third Lesson!

Over near Stratford-on-Slaney, Tom (EI5IEB) and Johnnie (EI8IPB) working with Clive Williamson (another member of the GOIMRT) set up the mock Coastguard base with a Yaesu 857D and another low dipole antenna on portable power. This team also had Motorola VHF HTs for local communications.

We tried establishing a net on both 40m and 80m and found that 40m had the clearer signal. We also used USB to separate our communications from others on the band, and to reduce the possibility of our Drill being mistaken for a real event. We also began each message with “Drill Drill” and frequently during each message for the same reason. While we did experience some interference, including one other operator using USB and a few DX stations, conditions were generally good.

When everyone was in place and communications were established with initial radio checks, the scripted part of the exercise began. We had many sets of messages concerning the incident that were to be passed both through the MR Base (in Roundwood) and directly from point to point. Messages were read back for confirmation, and details were spelled out in phonetics. Traffic was so fast that logging became difficult, and we realised that a team of two would be better at each location. Fourth lesson!

At one point a Net-Control failure was simulated, and the designated Backup Net Controller took over. The backup had been chosen earlier as the station with clearest comms with all stations. The operation of the net continued with only a very slight delay, although the handover drill could be improved. Fifth lesson!

By the end of the exercise 39 messages had been passed, received, and confirmed in 56 minutes.

At the end of the exercise our far remote station, Ian (EI4DP, also ELARC) checked in from a field station in Fermoy with signal reports following our progress through the day.

Drill Closure and Debrief.

When the exercise concluded everyone still available gathered back at the Mountain Rescue Base for a debrief. We went through every glitch and problem experienced during the day, to get the best possible learning from the day. We have a much longer list of lessons than the few mentioned in this article, but in general our goals for the day were achieved.

We had succeeded in providing communications to the organisations that needed it, and in bad weather conditions too.

ELARC succeeded in establishing voice communications between the MR Base and three remote locations beyond Line of Sight, over mountainous terrain with no infrastructure. And maintaining that communications for an extended period facilitating the emergency response to a fictional plane crash.

So, although the Tetra system is efficient and flexible in serving the emergency services, it does require an immense amount of infrastructure in terms of hardware and software. We’ve demonstrated that in the absence of Tetra, voice communications between remote locations nationally via NVIS is easily achieved. In such circumstances limited or restricted communications is much better than none.

Future Events.

ELARC is intending to continue developing our skills in this area, improving our speed of setup, the effectiveness of our procedures and possibly extending into digital comms such as JS8Call. And we continue our interest in using the 4m VHF band.

Which brings me to our guest from the Tyndall Institute… Dr Boris Galkin is experimenting with drone borne repeaters to extend the range of VHF nets in emergencies. His drones can give a huge range to such nets, which of course would require much tighter operating procedures as the number of stations on frequency could be much higher. We’re hoping to work with him in signal testing around Leinster.

We would encourage other clubs or groups of operators in Ireland to run similar training exercises / field days / drills, to improve their ability to operate with independent power in difficult conditions. Every licensed Amateur should be in a position to assist their local community and emergency services in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately waiting until the incident occurs to begin establishing Net frequency’s, Net-Controllers and times, will be too late. Normal communications methods such as email, social media and mobile phones will be disrupted or non-existent. So valuable time will be wasted setting up Nets and forming community links to enable communications within and between communities.

A simple one-page information leaflet with Primary, Secondary and Back-up frequencies, giving pre-determined Net times, similar to the Wilderness Protocol, could be distributed to every licensed Amateur. This should be printed and stored in your shack. Posted on the shack wall or in your Log book or other handy location. Just in case.

We would be happy to advise and assist any club or group of operators interested in conducting a similar event. Or if you’re interested in participating in a future ELARC training event, please contact Frank McKeown, our club secretary via email at mckeownfg@gmail.com

Kevin O’Kelly EI9IVB

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