LDS Emergency Preparedness

Be Prepared, Not Scared!

San Marcos CERT and MetroNet

Posted by Elise on November 17, 2009

By Scott McClintock

Emergency Operations Coordinator

As Community Emergency Response Teams emerged into American cities in the very early 2000’s, the City of San Marcos was not inclined to take part.  SMFD was extremely busy expanding its staff and facilities to keep up with the surging population.  Additionally, the Department already maintained a corps of retired civilian volunteers, who assisted the Department with daily administrative duties as well as with logistics at fire command posts.

Then in the Spring of 2005, I was hired by the city as an emergency planner in an agreement to work part-time for 5 years.  In this position my duties were to develop the city’s Emergency Operations Center equipment, procedures, and staff, to liaison with the county’s Office of Emergency Services, and to prepare a number of plans for the city’s response to disasters such as wildfire, earthquake, terror attack, hazardous materials accidents, and transportation accidents.

During the course of this work, I became concerned about the large number of mobile home parks in the city.  Mobile homes’ construction and foundations are not a stout as those of wood frame and stucco structures; their residents are often of retirement age or older; and they have very limited space for storing survival and emergency supplies.  The parks represent high concentrations of what emergency planners call “special populations”, and are often accessed by a limited number of driveways.

In the event of a Hurricane Katrina-sized regional disaster, it was clear that San Marcos’ on-duty sheriff’s deputies, firefighters, and paramedics would be overwhelmed, and that another dimension of emergency response was needed.  With this argument, and with $10,000 in Homeland Security Grant funding available, the city in 2006 approved the formation of a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), so that members could take care of themselves, their families, and their neighbors in the event of a widespread disaster.

Like other cities, San Marcos decided to place the team under the Fire Department, and a Battalion Chief was assigned to oversee the team.  The city’s Communications Officer placed notices in numerous bulletins and newspaper articles to locate willing participants. A partnership was formed with Palomar College for the administration of instructors, facilities and materials, and the first 9-week San Marcos CERT class graduated on June 2, 2007.  Students were taught disaster preparedness, light search & rescue, fire fighting, first aid, disaster psychology and other topics.   With the grant funds, the city purchased equipment kits for free issue to the CERT members. The kits include gloves, goggles, hard hats, vests, first aid supplies, tools, survival food and water, and numerous other items that might be needed in the worst case scenario.

The program continues to run classes at the rate of two to three per year.  Additional classes were provided for staff members at Palomar College as well as Cal State San Marcos.  At this time the team size is well above 100 members, and subsequent classes continue to be scheduled.  Residents of the San Marcos Fire Protection District can call (760) 744-7050, extension 3405 for information and to register.

San Marcos MetroNet:  All cities in California are required to follow the Standardized Emergency Management System, or SEMS.  An important part of this system organizes the flow of information during disasters between the cities and their respective counties, and then on to the state.  This information flow allows the areas who are damaged in disasters to request help in the form of personnel and equipment.  It also helps the county and state government to know where to send the resources.  Such information flow depends on telephones and the Internet, unless those systems are knocked offline by the disaster.  In that case, SEMS depends on radio communications.

The government radio system in our region is a robust and well-managed system which depends on a series of mountaintop relay stations called “repeaters”.  These facilities receive radio messages from local police and fire units, amplify them, and send them on to the county hub.  Although there are multiple back-up facilities and procedures for the regional system, it could fail if the repeaters, computers, or dispatchers became victims of the disaster.  Additionally, we learned during the Firestorm of 2003 that so many fire, law enforcement, and other government personnel using the radio system encountered communications problems merely due to the volume of users.

The radio link, therefore, between the city and the county is imperative.  To back up the regional radio system, the county sponsors the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES).  RACES is composed of volunteer ham radio operators who donate their time and personal equipment to support regional government radio communications.  RACES operates on the proven fact that when all other electronic means are offline, ham radio still works.

Immediately after starting my position as the San Marcos Emergency Planner, I contacted RACES to make sure that San Marcos was connected to the system and would enjoy back up ham radio connectivity to the county.  I learned that San Marcos does have a RACES station and a designated operator, however there is only one of each.  Emergency planners don’t like having just one of anything because redundancy is key to disaster response and survival.

Therefore, to provide redundancy to our RACES station and operator, San Marcos MetroNet was formed.  It was not difficult.  The Federal Communications Commission maintains a database of licensed ham radio operators.  This database was filtered for operators living within the limits of the San Marcos Fire Protection District, and a letter was sent inviting them to join the new organization.  Approximately 30 operators answered, joined MetroNet, and became registered as Disaster Service Workers.

Every week, MetroNet members call in on a specified frequency to check in and to make sure their equipment is working.  This is a low-maintenance drill, in that they don’t have to leave home to participate, and it only takes a few minutes. Several times a year, the MetroNet operators participate in larger drills that involve communications with other cities and the county.  In one special drill in 2008, the members rode with sheriff’s deputies and fire companies to temporarily replace the government radio system with their hand-held ham radios and with “human repeaters” positioned on strategic hilltops.

San Marcos MetroNet members perform a valued service to their community, and have a great deal of fun while doing it.  For more information on MetroNet, call 744-1050, extension 3453.

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