NorWesCo ATV

By JODI McLAIN Sentinel Reporter

SIREN-NorWesCo is taking its amateur radio emergency coordination to the sky. For years, the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service group has helped Burnett County with emergencies. They’ve become the communication device for busy sheriff’s officers and firefighters. They’ve watched suspicious clouds and called-in tornadic activity to the National Weather Service.

Now, the RACES group is getting one step ‘higher.” During a recent practice test, NorWesCo successfully received on a television monitor live pictures from a TV antennae mounted to the belly of a DNR plane. The idea? Sending back pictures of forest fires sweeping across fertile hotbeds.

It’s called ATV, “amateur television.” Amateur radio operators have long been using their frequencies to instantly send words back and forth. While many don’t know it, the group can use those frequencies to televise the events they cover. Sometimes those events are sled dog races or mock emergencies. But as far as NorWesCo coordinator Wes Jones knows, never before have amateur frequencies been used to televise the movements of an active forest fire.

It could turn out to be one of the most valued uses of the technology. For Jones and DNR Forester Ed Forester, who’s working with NorWesCo to use ATV, it’s an exciting development. The Federal Communications Commission reserves a band of frequencies for RACES operators, including NorWesCo’s volunteers. Operators who apply for and get an amateur’s license must agree never to use those frequencies to earn money. Businesses can’t use amateur frequencies, but neither can governmental units. However, volunteer operators can run on amateur frequencies while providing a civil service. Most groups help agencies In all the ‘normal” ways.

But for the past year, NorWesCo has been brainstorming about the capabilities of amateur TV to broadcast fire.

‘We’ve been fooling with it for quite a while,” Jones said. For the first time this past year, the group introduced TV to Solon Springs’ Empire 130 Sled Dog Races. NorWesCo has coordinated the race’s verbal communications for many years. This time they had pictures too.

When they found out how simple getting TV pictures was, NorWesCo group members got to thinking: wouldn’t be great to show fire pictures from the sky?

They contacted Forester, who hooked them up with Bob Pearson in Siren. Pearson had been tinkering with the idea already. The two groups, NorWesCo and the DNR, got ready for a test flight. They put an ordinary video camera in the airplane and mounted an attached antennae to the plane’s underside.

On the ground, NorWesCo set up their radio equipment, with one addition – a TV set. Sure enough, when the plane got off the ground and beams were aimed at the antenna, a picture appeared on the TV screen. It worked.

“A picture’s worth how many thousand words?” Forester said. That’s exactly his goal for the project – allowing pilots to do more flying and have less responsibility for verbally relaying what they’re seeing from above a ground fire.

DNR fire bosses on the ground rely on what pilots tell them. They need to know where a fire is heading and what hotspots need special attention. What pilots say plays a big part in fighting fire. Pilots already have photo capabilities; but the pictures are still shots that get periodically dropped to the ground.

The DNR could use more photo power. Pilots under pressure often give information that can be interpreted in different ways. Pictures don’t lie, though. A pilot can take direction from fire bosses and turn their planes in all directions. Shots will be sent to the ground, and it’s up to the bosses to decide a fire’s severity. “The information will greatly aid the quality of decision-making,” Forester said.

Eventually, once the process is fine-tuned, the public can watch fire broadcasts on Public Access Channel 60. But don’t expect to see them right away. It may not be until 2001 that the DNR starts regularly utilizing NorWesCo. The DNR wants accurate pictures from up to 25 miles away, at 1,000 feet in the air. So there’s a little more work to be done. When it’s finished though, NorWesCo should have a real feather in its cap.

“The lynch pin to move it forward is this group” Forester said.