Emergency Response: RACES – ACS – CERT

UPDATED 6/27/15

We are members of the Contra Costa County (California) Sheriff’s RACES organization. RACES is the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, an element of the County/State Office of Emergency Services. RACES is sponsored by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration but is under local control of the Sheriff during day-to-day exercises, training and callouts.

Why do we practice emergency communications?

KGO Towers - earthquake collapse   Photo: John Schneider

KGO Towers – earthquake collapse Photo: John Schneider

Because Stuff Happens. Loma Prieta earthquake in California 1989

Note: Effective in August 2014 the title “RACES” has been dropped and this organization is now the Sheriff’s Auxiliary Communications Service“ACS” in Contra Costa County. This group is part of the Sheriff’s Emergency Services Support Unit. The redesignation is in recognition of the new missions direction we have received from the Sheriff. I expect the term RACES will also be used for awhile as we break old habits and adapt…..


I have been a member of CoCo RACES since the late 1970’s and participate in various Nets to check in and exercise our equipment, organization, training and systems. We also participate in annual “Field Day” events to exercise emergency communications capabilities in an adverse “field” environment as well as other Simulated Emergency Tests (SET). We also belong to CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) which is sponsored by the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District. We have set up portable radio stations at various CERT/SET training sites to practice “EMCOMM”, Emergency Communications. We participate in both the Sheriff’s RACES and Fire Department CERT Nets on a weekly basis as well as periodic larger exercises run by both organizations.

Solar Powered Ham Station – N6CC

Above: Be Prepared! Our 20 watt solar panel charges a big, deep-cycle 12 volt storage battery via a home made charge controller and system monitor. Although it is a small panel it will run things indefinitely at the rate and duty-cycles that we operate. If commercial power fails the equipment automatically switches to solar/battery power.  This station has been solar powered since 1979.
Before it was cool ! ;o)

Solar Charge Control & Monitor – N6CC

My homemade charge controller is used to protect the battery from being over-charged. Any commercial controller sized for the system will work. It measures both panel or battery voltage and the charging current. The controller, panel, battery, relay (contacts), wiring and fusing should be specified and selected for the size of the station equipment load, the amount of “solar powered” time your load needs, sun exposure etc. Mine is a very small system, the panel is about 12″ x 18″ and delivers 20 watts under full sun.

Solar Transfer Switch System

Solar Transfer Switch System

Above: A rough block-diagram sketch of the automatic solar power transfer system. The basic idea is that commercial AC power powers the Astron 12 V power supply which powers the station equipment via the left-hand relay contacts. The Astron simultaneously powers the 12 volt relay coil, holding it in the “AC Power Source” position. When commercial power fails, the Astron goes off and the 12 volt relay coil looses power. Then the spring-loaded transfer relay “lets go”, automatically transferring the station equipment 12 volt power distribution system box to the solar battery power, via the right-hand set of “DC” relay contacts. I can also run the radio system solely on solar//battery power as an exercise simply by switching the Astron 12 volt power supply Off.
This sketch is an oversimplification, not all loads or fuses (Safety First!) are shown but it illustrates the concept and process. When commercial power fails, I hear a “click” from the relay and the entire system keeps operating as before. Except nothing else in the house is now working.

We also have “Plan B” at the ready:

1KW Generator

TOOLBOX RADIO SET: Below is a portable station I recently assembled to assist in these exercises and it is kept “at the ready” with the battery trickle-charging and frequent operational tests.  It has a LOT of battery capacity.  It is designed as a “Grab-N-Go” system, it includes everything you need to set up a portable 2 meter VHF station for any purpose. The TR-751 radio also provides for SSB and CW communications – fun while mountain-topping!

This is a simple, self contained radio station built inside a Craftsman heavy-duty plastic tool box with a few modifications. Inside is a Kenwood TR-751A two meter transceiver which can operate in FM and SSB voice modes as well as CW. The transmitter puts out either 5 or 25 watts to a BNC connector mounted on the side for an external antenna connection.

The box also contains a deep cycle 12 Volt “garden tractor” battery and is capable of powering this radio for several days or more, depending upon the power setting and transmit duty cycle. In a normal “just receiving/monitoring” mode it should be good for at least a week – the receiver draws very little power.  The battery connections also provides power to a “cigarette lighter” jack for charging external cell phones or other 12 volt devices normally powered that way. The battery also provides 12 Volts to a 30 Amp Anderson Power Pole connector to power other external equipment; these connectors are a RACES national standard to insure interoperability. There is also a jumper to permit charging the battery with an external source of 12 volt power such as a vehicle, gas generator or my 20 Watt solar panel. With the solar panel connected, this station can operate indefinitely. All radio, charging and accessory jacks are fused appropriately.

The box lid, seen on the right snaps in place to make the box easily carried with its built-in handle. The box top includes the TR-751A Channel/Frequency chart, the local RACES frequency plan as well as pencils and pens as needed. There is lots of extra room inside the box for additional accessories and supplies.

The box also has a 20 watt, 4 ohm speaker mounted on the side as well as an earphone jack for headphones which disconnect the speaker when plugged in. The antenna normally used is a roll-up “J-Pole” antenna with a raising halyard and fishing sinker to launch it up over a convenient branch or other support. The antenna and coax line are stored inside the box next to the battery. The box also contains pencils, pens, repeater directory, flashlight, headphones, spare fuses, an FRS walkie talkie, tape, coax adapters and a note book.

Here’s a photo of the inside detail and another with the dark gray “tray” removed to show the battery. Everything with the exception of the speaker is easily removable in the event that is more useful. The transceiver is fitted in using closed-cell foam for shock mounting and easy removal. The heatsink has adequate circulation and it does not get overly warm during extended transmitting at the 25 watt power setting. Five watts usually does the job easily via repeaters.

Here’s a view of the inside. Simple, nothing fancy, very flexible. It also provides 12 VDC to a cigarette lighter socket and to an Anderson Power Pole connector for powering other, external equipment such as cell phone / Walkie Talkie chargers and the like. Both circuits are appropriately fused.

Below is a photo of our first deployment of the ToolBox radio at a RACES training exercise at the local high school. We had a serious terrain masking problem to the remote site so we installed our 7 element Yagi antenna on its 18 foot mast. Lashed to the Bronco, it did the job. I have since improved the vehicle mast mount so it doesn’t have to rest on the ground. (See my post on “Antenna System Ideas” for more details on this Yagi setup.) The radio system worked very well.

The ToolBox radio set in operation: Note the PVC J-Pole antenna mounted on the plywood under the radio. Attached via a 1/2 inch pipe flange, the weight of the radio held the antenna in place. Unfortunately, the J-Pole did not have enough gain to overcome the terrain issues during this specific exercise – hence the Yagi. Otherwise, the PVC J-Pole works great. Simple, easy to set up, flexible, cheap, has gain!

Below is a photo of our 2008 RACES – CERT Field Day site using different gear at Central Park in San Ramon CA.  Some new hams here – they worked HF contacts all over the western US and Alaska.  “Wow!  This is cool”

Below is a photo of our 2009 RACES – CERT Field Day site. It was HOT – hence the parachute! The AB-85 aluminum mast held our HF dipoles as well as the ‘chute. This station was solar powered and operated on 2 meters and most HF bands, both SSB voice and CW. That curved antenna above the operating table is a 2 meter J-Pole antenna built inside a piece of PVC pipe and taped to the table leg – simple, effective, not too straight.

Another view below. Note the 20 Watt solar panel in the background – it is portable.  Yes, that’s a PRC-6 “Handy Talkie” on the table.  Impresses the Teeny Boppers with their Me Phones ….

Below is our station set up at the CERT – SET earthquake response exercise in 2009. We were set up in a parking lot adjacent to the local park/tennis courts which generated a lot of questions from curious citizens in the area. We were running an FT-897 on HF and 2 meters and FRS walkie talkies to take information from the CERT teams surveying the neighborhood for “damage”. We also had the ammo-box scanner to monitor all the local police and fire traffic and other CERT teams in the area. I had a PRC-25 handy for 6 meters and also to talk with the local US Army base if that was needed in an actual “life or death” emergency. We relayed our information to the Fire Department who then relayed it to County OES. The station was battery powered with a small solar panel for trickle charging.

Below is another CERT – SET event at a local community center “CP”. Training a local resident on RT procedure. CERT uses FRS radios extensively to coordinate their local teams and we function as a data fusion center/CP to relay that info out of the immediate area via long range Ham radio circuits. As before,  I use my Ammo-Box scanner receiver to monitor police, fire and all the FRS channels and my small FRS radio to talk with our teams. This community center was in a deep canyon which made 2 meter antenna improvisation a “must” to maintain comms. The station was solar powered.

Below: Here’s another Field Day set up to practice “emergency” communications; this time in a remote spot in the Sierra Nevada mountains. In this case we were running a CW (morse code) station using a military AN/GRC-109 transmitter-receiver “tailgate portable”.  We also used SSB voice on the County HF frequency to check into their local net. Good practice for “The Big One” out here in California. Plus the scenery was great!

I do a LOT of field radio communications since I do a lot of camping and they make a great combination.  A good opportunity to “Elmer” my buddies – they think I am crazy, slinging HF wire antennas up into the trees – but then they ask me how to get a Ham license.. “This stuff is cool!”  So far these camp trips / remote radio operations have resulted in 8 new hams for our ranks.

Practice, practice, practice. There’s no substitute for actually getting out there and doing it.

Off-Grid Comms from remote location

Off-Grid Communications from remote locations

Above: Exercising emergency communications from locations WAY off-grid is excellent practice where no fall back option is even available. Make it work. Here, making many regional and long range contacts via morse code. Lots of lessons-learned went into developing this capability; many new ones learned along the way. Field Day 2016, Sierra Nevada mountains.


RACES Exercise of 5-21-11
The intent of this exercise was to try to link all major towns in Contra Costa County via 2 meters VHF radios. The intent was to try low powered portable radios to simulate the loss of all local communications, including the ham radio and public service repeater systems due to failure or overload. Fixed-portable stations setup as below.

The above photo is my station set up overlooking San Ramon valley during the exercise. I was using the 7 element Yagi antenna to contact various towns in the county on 2 meters FM simplex. I was using the “tool box” radio setup with its internal 12 volt battery. The Yagi is now supported by a section of AB-85 aluminum mast permanently bolted to the Bronco spare tire carrier. To set up the Yagi, I just assemble it, put it on top of several other sections of AB-85 and then drop it into the bottom section. Takes about 5 minutes and I can aim it just by turning the lower mast. Very effective. I had good comms. Photo by Patty, K6PYM.

Tailgate Ops Center. Running the toolbox radio just sitting on the tailgate. You can see the Yagi mast mounted to the spare tire carrier. Very quick to set up and move if necessary. Photo by Patty, K6PYM.


RACES Field Day 2011:

We drove the mobile up to a neat picnic site on Mt Diablo and worked the event with the mobile gear and the new mobile HF whip antenna. The purpose of the event was to participate in the ARRL Field Day “contest”. The goal is to set up in a remote field location and operate away from fixed facilities and power to simulate emergency conditions. We worked 18 different states as far away as Connecticut and Hawaii, all on CW. The new mobile rig and antenna set up worked very well on their first shake down cruise.

RACES Field Day 2014
Below is the simple setup for Field Day this year. Worked lots of stations all over the US on 20 meters SSB, CW and VHF FM using s simple 50′ random wire strung in the trees as an Inverted L. We used a J-Pole on 2 meters FM that was hanging from an upper tree branch.

Field Day Solar Powered

Field Day Solar Powered

Above: The FT-897 running off a solar-charged 12 Volt garden tractor battery. This would basically run SSB and CW indefinitely with their low duty-cycle transmitters. This system is perfect for RACES / CERT operations in any emergency; both local and very long range communications.

Field Day 2014 Station - N6CC

Field Day 2014 Station – N6CC

Above: The little battery provides plenty of solar power storage. The DIY charge controller protects the battery from overcharging and provides battery voltage and charge current monitoring.  Plus, it can tell you when sunset arrives…Keep that ground stake wet!

Emergency Radio Communications in the Field

Emergency Radio Communications in the Field

Above: As part of Way-Off-Grid emergency communications preparation, we also practice operating in austere environments with no infrastructure support. (That includes a supporting vehicle as shown in the posting above.) Here in a remote location 40 miles north of Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada mountains exercising our solar-powered high frequency CW (morse code) capability. This training evolution exercises our “Go Kit” and our ability to set it up and operate it from nearly anywhere. The Kit also includes long range, high frequency SSB voice capability and that is used to check into the weekly Contra Costa County Sheriff’s HF Net from this location over 150 miles away.

This setup is capable of operating indefinitely and can provide local, regional and cross continent emergency communications when local systems have failed, are overloaded or too short range for a given task. That might include regional power grid failures, repeater power or equipment failures, massive infrastructure overloads, cell phone system failures or re-prioritization of Cell Site resources for public safety – only usage.
The AN/GRC-109 radio set shown above can also be run by a human-powered hand cranked generator as an alternate power source in the unlikely event that the solar battery system fails. The panel and small garden tractor (or any vehicle 12 volt battery) can sustain lengthy Net operations at night or after only partial sun charges the battery.

As a plus, the food is much better out here too!

RACES/ACS Exercise August 16, 2014:

This county-wide Sheriff’s Department Auxiliary Communications System exercise was to set up and test portable 2 meter stations (and in our case an additional HF station on 75 meters SSB). We passed traffic around the county and also provided HF relay to stations outside VHF range. Our VHF station was solar powered, the HF station was powered from the truck battery. The 1 KW generator was available to charge 12 V batteries or to provide any needed 120 VAC power. A good exercise.

Fixed-portble 2-Meter Yagi on a RACES exercise

Fixed-portble 2-Meter Yagi on a RACES exercise

Above: The Bronco with the AB-85 mast attached to the spare tire carrier and its 7 element Yagi antenna. Good comms despite significant terrain blockages during this exercise.

RACES/ACS Exercise Site off-grid power supplies

RACES/ACS Exercise Site off-grid power supplies

Above: Off grid power sources available. The solar panel could recharge either the truck or VHF “toolbox” radio battery; here it is connected to the external VHF station. The generator could charge either battery or power 120 VAC equipment (such as lighting) as needed.

Communications Leader Exercise (COMLEX) 11-14

Another Auxiliary Communications Service exercise, this time in support of the local town CERT program. Our tasking was to link the Fire Department Emergency Operations Center with the County Sheriff’s Emergency Operations Center via simplex radio.

CERT communications support - portable VHF beam antenna

CERT communications support – portable VHF beam antenna

Above: The installed equipment and antennas at the local Fire Department were not adequate to establish VHF simplex communications with the County Sheriff’s Department due to terrain blockage. This was solved by the use of the portable Yagi and mast mounted on the Bronco. Simple – on the air in about 10 minutes from “Go”.

Communications support vehicle with "Go Kits"

Communications support vehicle with “Go Kits”

Above: The “Back End” with tailgate operating table, Go Kit equipment and antenna supports. Note the backup J-Pole antenna lashed to the vent window doorpost. Improvise, adapt, overcome.

Portable VHF Yagi mounted above vehicle

Portable VHF Yagi mounted above vehicle

Above: Usually there is no substitute for GAIN. We were able to provide full-quieting voice signals on 2 meters FM and also digital messaging using fldigi on a partner’s Laptop computer.
Mission Accomplished

Another Off-Grid exercise: Field Day 2015

Field Day 2015 CW Station

Field Day 2015 CW Station

Above: The Off Grid CW station consisted of military transmitter receiver AN/GRC-109 and a TRC-77 Transceiver, both about 10 watts output to a simple wire antenna. Lots of contacts all over the west coast with this “bullet proof” station powered by a garden tractor battery (solar panel in stand by).

Sand Bag cache for flood response

Or sometimes doing mundane things – like running a community Sand Bag station for residents to use in diverting rain runoff.

The usual California disasters, earthquakes, wild land fires, voting for idiots, floods, riots, mudslides etc….