The Cascadia Rising 2016 earthquake exercise held in June throughout the Pacific Northwest tested the emergency management ability of multiple government agencies, and the recent Washington state assessment from that disaster drill -- the largest ever conducted -- noted the area still has work to do to be adequately prepared, especially concerning communication.
NHB's full-scale training exercise Operation Cascadia Rumble, held in conjunction with Cascadia Rising 2016, specifically tested the command's ability to communicate.
According to Terry Lerma, NHB Emergency Preparedness manager, it was a foregone conclusion going into the exercise that being able to communicate is key to providing medical support to those in need when trying to handle a disaster such as an extensive earthquake, along with the associated aftermath.
"Communications will always be one of the top three things listed as critical," said Lerma. "The other two are logistics and planning; yet for both of those to function, there has to be communication."
When the next big earthquake hits -- and scientists all say it's a matter of when, not if -- Puget Sound residents can expect internet and cellphone connectivity to be knocked out, as well as landline phone services severed.
If high-tech options can't be used, then it's time to go "old school," which NHB is able to do with wireless amateur radio, or HAM radio -- a very traditional method of message exchange.
"Even though HAM is viewed as an ancient technology, it has proven its reliability, dependability, and versatility," stated Lerma.
Lerma noted in any disaster or large scale drill that went bad, communications, or lack thereof, is always one of the top issues that falters. Adding HAM radio capabilities enables contact outside the command to keep staff members informed.
"Modern technology only has so much bandwidth, and is dependent upon a constant power supply source," said Lerma. "In an emergency, local communication systems can overload by everyone wanting to tweet or post, or just call family and loved ones. There is also only a limited amount of contingency back-up power to sustain cellular communication systems. After such disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Super Storm Sandy, it was HAM radio operators providing up-to-date communications information all the way up to the governor's office on logistics, supply, resources, and emergency medical needs."
There are two distinct advantages having a HAM radio affords a hospital. There is limited power needed, and all it takes is a 12-volt car battery to power and operate a HAM radio.
"Even in a catastrophic power failure, if you have a vehicle with a working car battery, you can power up a HAM radio and the unit's repeater system reaches can literally 'bounce' off repeaters and communicate with other HAM operators locally, statewide, nationally, and even around the world," Lerma said. "If we do have a infrastructure collapse of cellular towers, we will still have a method with the HAM radio to communicate with such vital local partners as Harrison Medical Center, Kitsap Public Health, and Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management."
The HAM radio is conveniently located in NHB's Emergency Management Office, and gets support from local amateur volunteers.
"Most of the volunteers are retired military, so they have base access," stated Lerma. "However, if the roads were compromised and they couldn't make it, we would have to rely on any trained NHB staff to serve in this capacity."
One such volunteer who did make it in during Operation Cascadia Rumble was retired Senior Chief Information Systems Technician Lee Moberg, who has been involved in HAM radio since his active-duty days.
"With the right radio and antenna, information can be sent or received across town, the state, the country, or even across the ocean to thousands of other HAM operators," said Moberg, a Brainerd, Minnesota, native who got his initial HAM radio license in 1983. "One of the best features is that most equipment is designed to be portable, or at least transportable."
Moberg agreed with Lerma that any time a large regional disaster happens, it is highly likely the infrastructure supporting landlines and cell communications will most likely be damaged.
"What does survive is going to be over-saturated with the sharp increase in phone calls to family and friends," Moberg said. "Local emergency services are not really equipped for long distance communications. The Washington State Patrol has a repeater network for statewide use, but the local services do not. Amateur radio, however, makes long distance communication an art. HAMs thrive on finding new ways to do long distance communications."
Moberg's role during a big earthquake, as will be the case for most, depends on where he is at the time of the actual seismic event. If he's at work, he would probably be stuck, unable to depart. He could, however, walk to the Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor Emergency Operations Center to help with relaying messages. If he was home, he would be away from any Navy installation and would probably end up at one of Port Orchard's fire stations, assisting with message traffic. Helping out is what he will do, even if it's using the HAM radio setup he has at home.
"Because when it happens, the ability to communicate externally as well as internally will be vital," Moberg said.