Webcams over the Fires

Various mountaintop/tower cameras —with views over the Kincade and other fires— are accessible at: http://www.alertwildfire.org/northbay/

191029: Kincade Fire seen from Cobb Mtn tower cam.
191027: Kincade Fire from Mt St Helena webcam.
Oct 2019: a CalFire Air Tanker dropping retardant over the Kincade Fire in Lake County, CA. (Carol Leigh Photography)

Konocti Fire Lookout Closed

State Inspector shuts down Mt Konocti Tower on Wright Peak.

“Saint Helena, this is Konocti Tower… out of service.”

2019.10.04 • I may never again get to say that… at the end of a long shift, after looking out over all of Lake County’s green and blue magnificence, to keep my fellow citizens safer from fires and other disasters. It is with concern for the safety of Lake County’s people, animals and natural splendor, that I must report sad news to you. Today, a CA State Inspector has shut down the Mt Konocti Fire Lookout Tower on nearby Wright Peak. Mark your calendars, friends. It might be a long wait. 🙁

The details will be available through the local Forest Fire Lookout Association (where I volunteer for shifts on the tower), but the preliminary information is that the Inspector locked us out —well before the end of Fire Season— for what he deemed to be unsafe conditions related the tower’s physical state (dry rot, weakened steel, cracking concrete). At first, I wondered if they were talking about me. 😉

Personally, as a volunteer lookout, I don’t mind an appropriate level of risk — if it saves lives and property. Sure the tower is old and worn (who isn’t?), but it’s not statistically likely to fall down until after fire season 2019. To add some perspective, I’m pretty sure the firefighters who go and actually put out the fires are willing to accept a similar class of risks (to a higher degree, of course) and for the same reasons.

As a community, we are suddenly less safe, but a few dozen volunteers will be safer, so… consider that logic. On the bright side, we could now become more dependent on one PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) Security Camera mounted by CalFire on the northeast corner of the tower. You can see the images here. As you will see, the difference between those PTZ cameras and human beings with brains and powerful binoculars is… significant. Peripheral vision, a human brain and way better magnification will beat a camera any day.

Now, we as a community must find a way to compensate for this loss. The tower closure could last somewhere between “a fairly long time” and “never coming back online”. We’ve been metaphorically poked in the eye with a stick and left half-blind as a community to eruptions of smoke, flames and human foibles all around Lake County and beyond. We need more than ever to focus our collective energy on keeping each other safe. That starts with talking to each other, as do many other solutions to what ails our society. Talk. Get to know people. Feel comfy calling them for help or going to help when they call. Learn the emergency protocols, like our “directed net”. Join a FireWise group (we have SIX all around Cobb!). Know where the places people talk about are located (yes, we need better maps on this website!).

So, if you’ve been sitting on the fence, waiting to see how this whole “volunteer emergency radio network” thing works out… well, it’s time now for you to step up, for your own safety and that of others too, including your loved ones and friendly neighbors. Get a radio and join us on the radio checks. There was talk of going back to one radio check per week, but now that Konocti Tower is going “out of service” indefinitely… I think we might go to three radio checks a week. Vigilance plus readiness equals life.

It’s easy to get involved and be part of the solution

 

CAVERN Emergency Channel

Not everyone wants to listen to a scanner or CAVERN throughout the day…and especially at night. Luckily CAVERN programmed radios can screen out the day–to-day chitchat on the frequency, so that you only hear alerts of local emergencies put out by fellow CAVERN volunteers.

Monitoring





To screen out chitchat set your CAVERN-programmed RETEVIS RT22 to channel 9, or (newer)BTECH GMRS V1 to channel 33. Additionally any FRS/GMRS radio that supports privacy tones can be set to channel 15 with a “privacy” or CTCSS receive tone of 103.5 Hz. Consult your manual or mel@cavern.mobi. (Often tone #13 corresponds to 103.5 Hz.)

NOTE: We test the tone at the beginning of Net check-ins or when a Fire siren is tested BUT we conduct actual check-ins on non-emergency channels! (RT22 ch8, V1 ch 15 or 23, most FRS/GMRS radio ch.15 with NO privacy tone.) So reset your radio after test or you may not hear anything!

Transmitting

Should you need to announce an emergency, first listen and ask on the non-emergency channel if the network is already aware of the emergency.

If there is imminent danger to the some part of the Cobb area (as in a moving fire within 1-3 miles likely to require evacuation) put out an emergency alert with as much detail RETEVIS RT22 to Ch .9, or BTECH GMRS V1 to channel 15 or 23 with CTCSS 103.5 set on transmit. Additionally any FRS/GMRS radio that supports privacy tones can be set to channel 15 with a “privacy” or CTCSS tone corresponding to 103.5 Hz (often named tone #13).

CAVERN Check-Ins: a “How To” Guide


About CAVERN Check-Ins

Anyone who can hear the CAVERN radio network is welcome to check in: you don’t necessarily need a ‘Callsign’ or a CAVERN ID (at least not the first couple of times). You can start out by checking in with just your first name or even a “handle” (i.e. a nickname).

We begin each weekly Check-In by testing our Emergency Alert channel. We do this, a few minutes before the main check-in starts, to make sure everyone is able to tune their radios to hear emergency alerts ONLY (if people want to, they can ignore the normal daily patter on our main repeater channel). Once we’ve given everyone about five minutes to confirm their ability to hear the Emergency Alert Channel (see the right-hand sidebar: we generally program these channels into peoples’ radios for them), then we proceed with the main Check-in, which is a roll call led by a Network Control person and organized by CAVERN groups in order*.

* We check in our Cobb Area Volunteer Emergency Radio Network operators starting from Group 1 through Group 6 and even to ‘Beyond’ the local area. Radio waves can propagate over very long distances. We have spoken to radio operators as far away as Signal Peak in the Sierra Nevada mountains. That’s 120+ miles east, using just a 5-Watt GMRS radio (and direct line-of-sight)!

CAVERN Groups 1—6
CAVERN Groups 1 through 6.

The CAVERN Directed Net

CAVERN is a Directed Net, meaning that, while any network session is in operation (usually for less than an hour), all communications go through a person who serves as “Network Control” (aka “NetCon”). Whoever is NetCon during the network session, that’s the person running the network, queueing people up in an orderly way so they don’t ‘step on’ each others’ transmissions (see Note #1). Basically, you don’t transmit until given the go-ahead, and if you need to interject anything, you first ask for permission as briefly as possible. To ask NetCon for permission to speak next, you use short phrases such as: “net control <your first name>” or “net control, comment…”. When NetCon says to go ahead, then you proceed with your “traffic” (i.e. your transmission or communication).

NOTES:
1. For more info on our implementation of the Directed Network protocol, which is very practical for effective emergency communications, see: “Intro to Network Control“.
2. Leave breathing room on the Airwaves: after anyone speaks, everyone should allow a few beats so NetCon can queue the next speaker. Sometimes, it’s so someone can answer your question (other than NetCon).
3. In the world of FCC-licensed GMRS radio operators (which is a different world from the unlicensed Citizen’s Band radio, or “CB”, familiar to fans of the Smokey & The Bandit movies), we reserve the word “break” ONLY for extreme emergencies. You will probably never say “break” on the CAVERN network: if anyone does, it’s probably bad news for everyone (e.g. a wildfire or storm damage).
4. Comments (i.e. non-roll-call messages) should benefit all listeners on the network.
5. We make time for casual chats among members after we close the net and release the frequency for general traffic.


CAVERN Check-In Protocol

Check-Ins start with Group 1 (download the sample check-in script at the ‘Intro to Net Control‘ link in Note #1 above). When you hear NetCon call for your Group by its number: first listen for the Licensed GMRS radio operators in your group to check in (they often have a lower number and can hear more people with their higher-powered radios); then check in by the order of your CAVERN ID. If you’re #5 in your group, you’ll go, and #6 checks in after you, etc.

Say your first name plus your CAVERN ID (or GMRS callsign, if you have one) to check in. That’s really all there is to it! For example: “Betty at Seigler 87, checking in” or “Angelo, WRCE720, checking in”. If you don’t know your CAVERN ID or don’t have one yet, no problem: just use your first name or a “handle” (a nickname, like “Pink Panther”). We understand that some shy woodland creatures may want to remain pseudonymous or that some parents prefer their kids not to use real names: that’s perfectly OK. The important thing is to use a persistent pseudonym to identify yourself so others can reach out to you reliably in an emergency.

If at first you do not succeed by immediately hearing acknowledgement from NetCon, just try checking in again. You can even check in later during another group’s time (anyone from the first few groups can check in late during any group’s slot or at the end).

You can also ask someone who you can hear and you can probably heat NetCon to “relay” your check-in for you. If you can hear a weak signal/distant station that NetCon does not seem to hear, during a gap you can say “net control, relay…” and, as soon as NetCon gives you the go-ahead, pass on the info you heard. (Expert Tip: listen with your radio’s “squelchoff, or very low, to hear weak stations.)

If you have a question for NetCon, during a check-in, just say “net control, question” and ask it when your turn comes (e.g. “how do I turn my squelch down?”). For more detailed questions, please send Network Control an email.


How To Relay Check Ins

Sometimes, people who are clearly audible to you cannot be heard by Network Control. In those cases, you can be the “relay” between them and the other people on CAVERN’s network. In fact, in a serious emergency, the ability to relay for neighbors can be a potential lifesaver for you or those near you. Happily, there’s an easy protocol for relaying signals this way. Here’s what it might sound like:

Hannah 1: “NetCon, Relay…”
Net Control: “Hannah 1, go with your relay…”
Hannah 1: “Relay for Hannah 22.”
Net Control: “Copy, Brett: 22 is checked in…”


How NOT to Check In

Hannah 13: “Achey-breaker-break. This is Hannah 13 aka Josh the Radio Dude, aka Whiskey Tangle Foxtail Doohickey 7-4 Niner. I’m hearing someone pretty weak out there… might be Brenda? I dunno… hey, I really like the new website, you guys! Anyway, go ahead and check in my dog Jasper, my pet iguana Tickles, my cockateel Snorton Buffalo Wings III… oh, and me, Josh the Radio Dude… (Awe-sooome!) Kay… I’m gonna go have some lunch now. This has been amazing as usual. Back to you, Mr Networky Dude.”
Net Control: “Uh… Josh, your super-long transmission stepped on Brett’s urgent relay. Brett, please repeat your relay… go ahead…”

In the “not” example above, try replacing the word “relay” with the phrase “urgent wildfire alert!”. Can you understand why worried people under the imminent threat of a wildfire would not be that interested in your pets’ names or your lunch plans? Would your otherwise “awesome” sense of humor be appropriate in such a situation? Maybe you see why rehearsing network protocol is important…? Remember: we’re practicing for life-and-death situations that are guaranteed to happen someday. We all need to be ready to communicate what we know (or need to know) in the most professional way possible, especially when talking to emergency responders. Be like “Brett/Hannah 1” below. Short & Sweet!

2019 Kincade Fire glow
2019 Kincade Fire glow, just west of Cobb Mtn.

July 2019 original: Mel
Feb 2020 upgrade: Dav