Small business, snow business
Few businesses face the range of activity confronted by ski resorts in the day-to-day operation of medium-to-large facilities. A ski facility manager’s concerns run the gamut from industrial activity in tram-and-lift operations and snow making to resort issues like safety and security. The challenges faced by the resorts here in Alaska can be met head-on with radio communications solutions.
Location, location, location
Most North American resort operations are located in mountainous terrain, so they must deal with periodic power outages, road blockages from avalanches and extreme weather conditions. They also have a clientele that often requires medical attention for everything from the sniffles to a leg broken on the black diamond run. Nearby towns tend to be small, with limited resources. Any communications system should provide area-wide coverage, include all operational local public safety departments and ideally interface with state or local agencies that deal with roads.
Additional service coverage enabling communications with air ambulance and search-and-rescue groups completes this list of “must-have” radio system features.
The Alyeska ski resort operates one of the most extensive private (non-industrial) communications systems in Alaska. The resort is located in Girdwood, a small town south of Anchorage. The world-class facility supports a resort hotel, a tram and multiple chair lifts, and a ski area located in a narrow canyon off of the Turnagain arm.
The resort has a five-repeater trunked system manufacturered by Motorola, with four active machines and a control channel. This 800MHz system offers several advantages to the operators.
Because of terrain features and a desire to support the local community, the upper tram station houses the repeater site and hosts radios from the local ham radio club and a system for the state of Alaska. This site provides service to a wide area, and it permits the local volunteer fire department, state road workers and troopers, as well as local hams, to communicate over an area notorious for road closures triggered by avalanches.
The upper tram station also houses a restaurant and a ski patrol headquarters, and it has both generator backup and UPS for critical systems. Because the winds often exceed 100mph, which can easily knock down power lines, this backup power adds another degree of confidence to an excellent system site.
The resort operates 16 talk groups over three fleets with 135 hand-held radios, 20 mobiles and three base stations. Each of the normal operations groups, such as ski patrol, snow safety, grooming, and tram and lift operators, has its own talk group.
Selected “super-users” have scanning features on their hand-held radios that allow them to communicate with all units.
Kurt Trayer, head of the ski patrol, said that radios are issued to individual workers, who are then responsible for charging, operator maintenance and turn-in for repair. Trayer said improved operator care had reduced battery problems. He also said the batteries last through a 12-hour shift because the operators follow proper procedures in charging.
A tour of the mountain facility’s snow-making operation reveals how essential the radio system is to this part of the resort. Thousands of gallons of water are pumped from a local creek and through a system of standpipes and hoses controlled by radio.
If resorts make snow when it’s in short supply, then in times of abundance they get rid of extra white powder with a bang. Jim Kennedy, director of snow safety, and his crew control snow buildup with the use of explosives. Not many small businesses typically have this kind of firepower onsite. With 105mm howitzers and 106mm recoilless rifles, Kennedy and his expert avalanche-busters depend on the radio system to coordinate safety during explosive use.
The radio system itself provides a multilevel service. Access to state troopers on the resort base stations ensures the safety and security of these powerful cannons, and it provides positive interaction in the event of an emergency. The local volunteer fire department also makes use of the Alyeska system, providing a service to local residents and saving taxpayer funds in the process.
Additionally, the resort base stations work on the Alaska statewide EMS and emergency services frequencies. The resort also saves money by programming its own Motorola radios, and it works with the volunteer ski patrol group to ensure that its ICOM hand-held radios are correctly set.
Although the radios are programmed locally, repairs are handled out of state. Units are shipped “outside” to a vendor and are typically returned within a week. Anchorage is a major air cargo hub, so having the radio repaired by a vendor with immediate access to spare or replacement parts makes good business sense.
Hand-held radio batteries are purchased in bulk, with about one-third of the fleet rotated at a time. Aftermarket batteries and OEM batteries seem to give different results, based more on user charge habits than on specific system attributes. For example, most patrollers get more than four years of use out of the OEM batteries with the remainder split on life-span.
The resort hotel recently added small Motorola Spirit hand-held radios for use by the bell-and-service staff to supplement an in-house paging system.
Other ski facilities in the area use simplex radio systems to control lift equipment and to communicate with their ski patrollers. A classic remote base and multiple hand-held radios provide more than adequate coverage.
Because these facilities are down in town, local telephone service, with a cellphone backup, meets all the needs for emergency agency contact for these smaller businesses.
A small business today cannot forgo a modern radio communications system, whether it’s a large trunked system or a less complex simplex system with remote base stations. Radios provide the key link for skier safety, facility operation and rescue work in the potentially dangerous world of recreational snow sports.
Contributing editor Koehler is a network operations manager at a major Alaskan communications corporation. His email address is AFDEK1@uaa.alaska.edu.