Keeping employees connected in the Alaskan region

Furuhelm communication site (Sitka Ranger District), is the most difficult site in Alaska to reach, and never remained operational in the winter due to the snow and ice. A solid oxide fuel cell was installed, which enabled the site to remain operational for a full year, for less than $20 in propane. Forest Service photo.

JUNEAU, Alaska — CIO Radio Technicians recently completed several tasks to increase the safety of all field going employees through the installation of new communication shelters able to withstand the harsh Alaska environment to installing new solid oxide fuel cells and converting all sites to mixed mode operations to facilitate both digital and analog radio communications.

The geographic diversity of the Chugach and Tongass national forests creates natural challenges for the regional radio program. The Tongass National Forest stretches over the 500-mile-long Southeast Alaska Panhandle and covers over 80 percent of that land, and the Chugach National Forest makes a 210-mile arc around Prince William Sound. Both forests, with their low-lying expanses of water, and higher, windy, weather-beaten mountainous peaks, create both logistical and technological challenges in keeping the forests and the employees connected. The region has more than 50 extremely remote sites, accessible only by helicopter. Nine of these sites were powered by Thermal Electric Generators that used propane and ran 24 hours a day. The propane contract costs were over $90 thousand annually and each generator had to be replaced every five years.

In addition to new communication shelters, Region 10 Radio Technicians researched, tested, and installed new, environmentally friendly, Solid Oxide Fuel Cells which only come on once batteries drop to a certain level, and shut off once the batteries reached full charge; and they only produce water vaper as exhaust. Installation of SOFCs at critical sites within R10 not only have reduced propane contract costs, but also saved over $28 thousand in helicopter costs to one site alone by not having to fly to a site due to ice and snow burying the solar panels. One site in Region 10 had never operated in the winter and was only accessible in the late summer after the snow receded enough for a helicopter to land on the glacier. This site remained fully operational over the winter months due to the installation of the SOFC, and now that the snow has melted off the solar panels, power is provided strictly by solar and battery as power remains at a high enough level the SOFC does not need to come on.

Finally, the Region 10 radio system was converted to fully digital capable allowing both analog and digital communications that pave the way for future technologies such as remote site monitoring, and GPS tracking in order to further enhance the safety of field going personnel in the great state of Alaska.

New Neka communication shelter at Hoonah Ranger District. Forest Service photo.