Radio communications play critical role at State of Arizona Vaccine PODs

Radio communications play critical role at State of Arizona Vaccine PODs

Civil Air Patrol Capt. John Giddings communicates via radio at the Phoenix Municipal Stadium Vaccine Point of Dispensing Site. Photo by: Nenette Alfonte, Marketing Program Specialist, Public Information Office, DEMA

Inside of an Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) recreational style vehicle at the State Farm Stadium Vaccine POD (point of dispensing) site in Glendale sits DEMA’s communications unit lead Dennis Bietry and communications coordinator Ed Taggard. Bietry, Taggard and their team have been an integral part of the site’s incident response.

Taggard takes a breather and reflects over a cup of coffee on how Arizona has come a long way in just a couple of months.

“We’ve got a number of agencies here,” Taggard said. “They had little time, started formulating a game plan and began to execute it. The people that were deployed identified any shortcomings and improved the processes each day.”

The State of Arizona has collaborated with Voluntary Organizations in Active in Disaster (VOADs) and private sector partners to stand up five state-run vaccination PODs and has immunized millions of Arizonans and counting against COVID-19. The statewide vaccination effort started with the opening of the first 24/7 large-scale State Farm Stadium Vaccine POD site on Jan. 11.

Taggard says the interagency coordination between DEMA, Arizona Department of Health Services (AZDHS), Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona (BCBSAZ), Arizona State University (ASU) ASURE, American Medical Response (AMR), Arizona Department of Public Safety (AZDPS), Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), Walgreens and others was the key to the quick, successful response to stand up the first State of Arizona Vaccine POD.

“I’m extremely proud to be associated with these workers,” Taggard said. “Some have participated in a similar joint exercise in 2019. They took that experience, put a plan together and executed it. It has worked so well that it has drawn the attention of other counties, other states, the federal government, all that have come here either physically or virtually to say ‘thank you’ and ‘we would like to emulate that process.’ That to me is such a huge pat on our back. We were just doing what we’re supposed to do as an agency to support the whole community.”

Bietry and his team are in charge of keeping the large number of agencies on the same page.  Early in the incident response, they assessed the need for radios to cover all positions and key zones on the 28-acre site. They would need radios in each zone as well as for each of the command staff.

Using their expertise as communications specialists, Bietry and his team show onsite workers how to use the radios and speak in plain language to ensure efficient and effective communication.

“Communications between the operations chief, incident commander and all the different zones have to be maintained,” Taggard said. “If questions arise across the 1.2 million square foot site, they can be answered rapidly to keep the process rolling. We also helped coordinate redundant communications at this event for the staff between Emergency Medical Services (EMS) provided by AMR and AZDPS which provided site security.”

Bietry and ASU ASURE worked with a local vendor that ultimately supplied 65 radios for the incident response. The local vendor reached out to its supplier to get more radios to cover the additional POD sites that were opening soon. With Bietry’s aid, the supplier and contractor stayed in constant communication to manage the cache of radios effectively and keep the communications flowing.

“I need more,” a voice says, as Taggard pauses his reflection for a moment. He can hear a voice speaking from the radio that he keeps attached to his belt.

“Copy that,” another voice replies.

Taggard explains that an onsite staff member is asking the pharmacy for more vaccine doses for the vaccinators.

Workers at the State Farm Stadium POD site utilize the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) radios with one channel dedicated to general event traffic and a secondary channel for longer tactical traffic that requires more bandwidth. A third channel, which the operations chief constantly monitors, is available solely for exceptions to save bandwidth on the main and tactical channels. In this case, the two parties carry their conversation directly over to the third channel so the operations chief can address needs efficiently.

While the two-way radios allow workers to speak with a specific person on site more quickly, the radios also provide the added benefit of what’s called “one-to-many” communications.

“Imagine if you were trying to reach somebody when you have a question,” Taggard said. “You could call multiple people on your cell phone trying to get an answer and maybe you get your answer on the third call. The problem is that the answer might have benefited some others in the area but they never heard the answer because it only came over your phone. Others may have been able to provide help too, but that opportunity is lost. On the radio when there’s one-to-many, that conversation provides situational awareness to the other players around that might be impacted by this conversation.”

The dozens of radios are not the only pieces of equipment that provide crucial communication capabilities throughout the site. The vehicle Taggard is sitting in includes a wide range of technological hardware that enhances and backs up those capabilities. The DEMA mobile communications center, also called “The Bullfrog,” is a custom built 42-foot recreational style vehicle on a Freightliner MT55 chassis with a diesel generator. The equipment within the Bullfrog allows emergency management and response personnel and their organizations to communicate with each other. This includes communication within and across agencies and jurisdictions through voice, data, or real-time video.

“We have all types of radios here,” Taggard said. “We can talk to repeater systems which would get our signal out farther than a regular simplex transmission. DEMA has a lot of ways to get communication out and we make sure we maintain as many ways as possible to make the communication.”

Replicating the early success of the State Farm Stadium Vaccine POD site is the top priority for Bietry and his team.

“Coming up with a playbook on how to do this successfully gives us the ability to go to a newly identified site, roll out the successes and tweak it to fit the new site,” Taggard said. “We make the game plan work for that site by identifying the nuances of each unique site.”

It’s an “on to the next one” mentality as the two communications specialists have since moved on to other POD sites to implement their communications strategies there. Fortunately for them, they can draw upon the experience that’s fresh in their memories.

“Our ‘secondary family’ is separating and going their own ways after this,” Taggard said fondly of his partners at the State Farm Stadium Vaccine POD site. “But that bond will always be there for this group. It’s something very special.”

As he looks back on a strong two months in Glendale, fatigue sets in as Taggard recalls the grind of the 24/7 POD site operation. But amidst tired eyes, Taggard takes a swig of his coffee and remembers what keeps him going, as he forges ahead to continue the emergency response.

“Seeing so many of the patients being so thankful for the volunteers and the time that was put in to make this POD site available is invigorating,” Taggard said. “Running this operation can drag your energy down. Seeing all the smiles, the thanks and appreciation, everything, it recharges me.”