Communication is Key as MARS Auxiliarists Refine Skills

By Gordon Van Vleet, NETCOM PAOAugust 13, 2020

Phone Patching
1 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – An MARS volunteer explains Phone patching equipment. Phone patching is the process of connecting an HF radio operator from an area with no telephone coverage, via an HF radio telephone interface box provided by the MARS operator, into the telephone network. (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL
Amateur Radio Society
2 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Ron Keech, secretary of the Elmendorf Amateur Radio Society uses a ham radio in the Elmendorf Amateur Radio Society Civil Air Patrol building, to speak with other operators. Keech is a Navy military auxiliary radio systems operator. (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL
3 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – The Army MARS Emblem (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT HUACHUCA, ARIZ., - The U.S. Army Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM) held a High Frequency (HF) communications exercise (COMEX) called ‘JulyEx’ 20 through 24 July as 700 Army and Air Force Military Auxiliary Radio System volunteers from across the United States worked to hone and refine their HF operator skills by conducting radio checks on specified frequencies with NETCOM stations including the 114th Signal Battalion, at Raven Rock Mountain Complex in Adams County, Penn., NETCOM HF Gateway station at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and the 30th Signal Battalion at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.

“We also had the Air Force HF Global Communication Station located at Andrews Air Force Base, Va., participating as a net control station along with the NETCOM entities,” said Paul English, Chief of Army MARS. “This exercise took the place of the regularly scheduled ‘DOD COMEX’ due to COVID-19 limitations,” English added.

The exercise was announced through the DOD HF Working Group members plus the more than 200 military and Department of Defense personnel who have worked with NETCOM personnel over the years conducting HF technical assistance labs as well as on-air exercises and communications support, English said.

“We had approximately 39 different military units who participated in the exercise including Active Duty, Reserve, National Guard and Special Forces units from across CONUS [continental United States], Germany, Alaska, Hawaii, Japan, and Korea,” said English. “Along with the 700 MARS Auxiliarists, we also trained with members of the Civil Air Patrol and hundreds of amateur radio operators across CONUS Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“The MARS Auxiliarists were tasked with collecting three different kinds of reports,” said English. “They collected county status reports from across the U.S. by interfacing with the amateur radio community; airport weather reports, called METARS, from select airports across CONUS and finally road closure reports.  In total, MARS Ops collected 1,400 city and county status reports; 424 METARSs [Meteorological Terminal Air Reports]; and 190 road closure reports.

“All of these reports were compiled and then selectively sent to the STRATCOM HQ [U.S. Strategic Command], NORTHCOM HQ [U.S. Northern Command], DISA {Defense Information Systems Agency], and the Civil Air Patrol. The purposes of these reports is to give general overall situational awareness of the status at the county level.”

For the Civil Air Patrol, the ability to receive METARs gave them awareness of the weather situation where they may have flight crews flying missions if traditional forms of communication were no longer available and they could not receive the current weather information, English said.

The county status and road closure reports would give STRATCOM and NORTHCOM relevant information about the ground situation, to include major road closures, which would be extremely useful if critical life-saving resources were needed following any future major event that would affect the ability to move military assistance into an impacted area. Also, these reports and tools would become extremely useful in the event of the loss of traditional forms of communication, English added.

“MARS members also passed on what’s called ICS 213 messages,” said English. “ICS 213s are just a standardized general message form used to convey information. For this exercise, 94 ICS 213 messages were handled by the MARS members and delivered to various recipients across the U.S. including American Radio Relay League officials, Federal Communications Commission, and personnel in the 10 FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] Regions.

“NETCOM personnel also partnered with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to have short radio messages about this exercise broadcast by the HF time stations with call signs WWV located in Fort Collins, Colo., and WWVH located in Hawaii,” English said. “These messages were received by more than 560 amateur radio operators in CONUS and Canada.”

“My role for any COMEX is to ensure that Region HF Radio Message Centers are operational on a daily basis and able to handle digital MARS messages originating from the NETCOM Fort Huachuca HF Gateway,” said Billy Pearson Jr., MARS Auxiliarist located in Linwood, N.C.

“A unique challenge for ‘JulyEx’ happened when four of the six Region HF Messages Centers run by other MARS Auxiliarists were unavailable due to members’ work and family requirements,” said Pearson. “This is a very realistic challenge as we never know when something will happen and we may be called upon to support a mission.” Pearson added that gave the Army MARS leadership a chance to think on their feet and react to the situation and develop work around solutions to solve the problem.

“All went well according to plan,” said Pearson. “It was a little stressful, but the messages were received and delivered.”

“This was my first time to function as Operations Officer so there was much to learn,” said Don R. Jarvis, MARS Auxiliarist located in Texas. “My role in ‘JulyEx’ was that of the Operations Officer for the MARS Auxiliarists located throughout FEMA Region 6 (Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and New Mexico).  I was responsible for coordinating on-air operations among the other MARS Auxiliarists throughout the region with both Army and Air Force MARS members totaling around 150 members.

“During this exercise, we implemented the team concept to the extent possible given everyone’s personal schedules. We found the members really benefited from having the same team member every week and are learning to coordinate and work together,” said Jarvis.

“Army MARS by its nature was not affected by COVID-19 since MARS personnel only work from our homes, and our interactions with other MARS personnel and military units is done over the air and using computer collaboration for exercise planning,” said Jarvis. “This exercise was actually a relief from the boredom of having to work at home due to COVID-19.”

“For this exercise I served as a critical HF message relay center to move requests for information received from the Fort Huachuca HF Gateway station to our Auxiliarists located throughout FEMA Region 10 (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska),” said Bliss Wheeler, MARS Auxiliarist located in Idaho.

“I believe the exercise scenarios demonstrated the high volume of information that would be requested and generated during an actual event,” said Wheeler.

“Prior to and during the exercise, NETCOM HQs for Army MARS planned and conducted a series of online webinars using the All Partner Access Network,” said Wheeler. “The Webinars were very helpful and relevant to the tasks we were training during the exercise. I found this to be a very useful tool to continue to train our members. I learned several things during these webinars and was able to capture valuable resources previously unavailable. Information sharing is what it is all about.”

For Jeffry A Howington, MARS Auxiliarist located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who served as the J3 Operations Officer for MARS Auxiliarists located throughout FEMA Region 7 (Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska), the exercise required a lot of communication with the team each night on what to expect for the next day and assigning members to fulfil tasks.

“I liken this role to an orchestra conductor of an orchestra, except the players in this exercise were spread out across the four states of our region,” said Howington.  “As the region J3, I wanted to keep our U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army MARS members aware of where they could serve best, whether that was running a net, serving as a duty officer, querying amateur radio operators for county status reports, or anything else.”

“Since this was a training activity, the volunteer region leadership team learned that communicating frequently with members using email, video conferencing, and of course radio messages to resolve confusion or other issues during the exercise was a good thing,” said Howington.  “Leaders learned how to better interpret each other and how we and the members react to ambiguity and the resulting stress so that if there ever comes a time where we are activated for real and we only have the radio, we'll know how to work together better.”

Another MARS Auxiliarist, David Hill, located in Stone Ridge, N.Y., who was responsible for receiving broadcast messages from the NETCOM HF Gateway station and passing them to region members for action and response, said “During this exercise, I trained on and learned how to better use the messaging software MARS uses to generate, transmit, and track the large volume of messages handled throughout this exercise.  Covid-19 has put significantly more pressure on all of us to keep all our communications systems fully operational.”

“We had very good participation from military stations,” said English. “NETCOM conducts the low power HF competition every March and we encourage units to also participate in the Canadian sponsored international military HF competition run every October. This ‘JulyEx’ was an exercise of opportunity for military stations since NETCOM assets were going to be on the air already, it only made sense to also invite military units to participate as their schedules permitted.

“The MARS Auxiliarists comments thus far about the exercise are very positive,” said English.   “They found the requests for information relevant and challenging.

“This exercise gave them a chance to continue to hone and refine their operator skills while also expanding the interoperability with the larger amateur radio community,” said English.

English said NETCOM is planning to conduct the next exercise in October, with a month-long series of mini-exercises, culminating in supporting a large National Capital Region exercise being run by the Defense Information Systems Agency scheduled for the end of October.