Amateur Radio Emergency Service® (ARES®) volunteers in Colorado stepped up as a mid-month “bomb cyclone” winter storm struck the state, with heavy rain shifting to heavy snowfall. The storm affected several states and led to significant flooding in Nebraska. Parts of Colorado recorded winds of nearly 100 MPH and record-low barometric pressure readings. ARES teams in Colorado began preparations a day ahead of the weather event.
Pikes Peak ARES alerted its personnel via email and a regularly scheduled Tuesday net and coordinated with the Special Communications Unit (SCU), a special cadre of radio amateurs in the Pikes Peak Regional Office of Emergency Management (OEM). Most SCU members also belong to ARES, but when called up by the OEM, they wear their SCU hats. The SCU planned to deploy to the Emergency Coordination Center (ECC) on March 12 and be ready to operate first thing in the morning.
At the time, the Red Cross did not anticipate needing Pikes Peak ARES support, so the ARES district planned to undertake weather spotting for the National Weather Service (NWS) office in Pueblo and relaying status information to the ECC. By the morning of March 13, however, the storm’s timing had changed, and the Red Cross requested ARES operators in four shelters, creating a problem with recruiting and deploying sufficient volunteers in time. Three ARES volunteers were identified, but by then the weather was so severe that only one was able to get through, amid difficulties.
At the request of NWS Pueblo, a formal weather net was called up and ran for more than 10 hours, even though the primary and back-up net control stations lost power for several hours. Some 70 operators provided reports during the storm and its aftermath. An informal net continued for another 16 hours until the SCU operators were released from the ECC.
“While the net started out as a weather net, it quickly became a common way for operators to report stranded motorists, requests for assistance, abandoned vehicles, Good Samaritan rescues — important so that the ECC could clear police, fire, rescue, and National Guard units from responding — shelter status, and requests about road conditions,” said John Bloodgood, KD0SFY, Pikes Peak ARES Emergency Coordinator and Public Information Officer (PIO). The storm stranded more than 1,000 motorists in El Paso County.
Neighboring Douglas and Elbert counties also took proactive measures on March 12, opening emergency operations centers (EOCs) in anticipation of the storm. Both counties count on ARES of Douglas and Elbert Counties (ARESDEC) radio to support communication in emergencies. Before the heavy rain turned to snow, the two counties had already begun to open shelters. The ARES team’s operations staff closely followed weather forecasts and knew this activation would be different.
“Our preferred procedure is to keep our operational periods to about 8 hours,” ARESDEC Operations Chief Denny Phillips, W0DDP, explained. “However, we knew that once our people were in place, especially on the eastern plains, that providing relief would not be possible. Our people would have ride out the storm in the shelters.”
As the storm progressed, it became clear to county officials that additional shelters would be needed. ARESDEC operators assisted the Red Cross in setting up shelters and organizing and managing food service.
“These were incredibly difficult circumstances for the people in the shelters,” said ARESDEC operator Dick Bush, WB0EVA. “I had a very good experience and would do this again in a minute.”
By the end of the storm, more than 1,100 people were hosted in eight shelters across the two counties. ARESDEC deployed 17 radio operators. Emergency Coordinator Jim Rooney, N4JJR, praised the volunteers’ performance, saying, “Our team performed well above expectations due to their commitment to training and willingness to serve.”
Colorado Section Emergency Coordinator Robert Wareham, N0ESQ, oversaw and took part in the overall response. — Thanks to Pikes Peak ARES EC and PIO John Bloodgood, KD0SFY, and ARESDEC PIO Ron Coffee, KD0TRY
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