HAMs Lend A Helping Hand
|Amateur ham radio enthusiasts are playing an unusual but important role in tsunami relief work, reports SHONALI MUTHALALY|
When four amateur radio operators headed to the Andaman and Nicobar islands a few weeks ago, armed with only basic equipment, backpacks and sun blocks, they had no idea that their fun hobby would soon become the islands' only lifeline.
"They went because it's a `high value' country for hams (amateur radio operators) since you need special permission from the Government to operate there," says Gopal Madhavan, an avid ham and one of the members of the governing council of the Amateur Radio Society of India. "The last time a ham operated in the Andamans was about 25 years ago."
The team, which came from across India, left Chennai on December 3 on their `DXpedition' (basically ham slang for an expedition to any foreign country). "They met here for a cup of tea before they left... There was a great amount of enthusiasm," says Gopal, carefully tuning his buzzing radio, alive with their voices crackling all the way from the islands. "They went to Port Blair, set up the equipment — all DXpeditions carry radios and dismantled antennas, which can be set up later with guy ropes — and contacted about 35,000 hams across the world."
Then, the earthquake began, followed by tidal waves, which swept over the small islands.
"They were actually in operation when the tremors began. Bharthi, the team leader, was talking to an Australian on the radio. He says her voice suddenly rose by a few octaves and she yelled `tremor'. Then, her radio went dead."
The islands were devastated by the quake and crashing waves. Phones died, the electricity went out and life in Andaman and Nicobar came to a stunned halt. On the airwaves too, there was a loud silence, as hams across the world held their breath, wondering whether the team had survived. However, about two hours later, unbelievably, they were back on the air.
"Every other form of communication was down. They were the only link from the Andamans to the mainland for several hours after the disaster," says Gopal, adding that the tsunamis had engulfed the island, paralysing all machinery and communication systems. The ham radio however, which was operating from a tower, was in working order, although the team did have to scavenge for batteries to get it operating again since it had been running on electricity.
In the tradition of hams, the team stayed on to help, the DXpedition was converted into an emergency network and hams from across the world, especially India, swung into action. Two more people headed to the islands to support the emergency network, and with help from the Indian Army, which is providing the hams with food, camping and batteries, the station on Port Blair continues to operate, while another station has been set up at Car Nicobar, which has been practically obliterated by the catastrophe.
Hams have time and again proved useful in situations like this where communication lines are down and emergency services have their hands full. "The police have to concentrate on law and order at this point, while the Army and emergency services have specific roles to play. Roles they cannot really deviate from because they have so much work to do," says Gopal.
He says they are often called upon by the Government to lend a helping hand since they are a mobile, usually well-connected, civilian group. Hams can set up radio stations even from their cars, travel around affected areas, identify people who need help and radio the police or hospitals. They can also mobilise men and materials since they have a vast network of millions of people from all walks of life, which covers the world. Port Blair, for instance, has just asked for 12 doctors so the hams are calling hospitals for help. "And while we co-ordinate from here, the ham control station in Delhi is talking to the Government to see if they can spare doctors," says Gopal.
Right now the main concern of the Andaman team is to find missing people. "We are getting calls from all over the world from people who are worried about friends and relatives," says Gopal. The teams in the islands field these calls, ask where the missing person was last seen and send people out to look for them. "However, with disasters like this, it is extremely difficult to find people since the tendency is to flee. What we can say is... well... if someone's dead and the body's been found," says Gopal. "We then radio back the news so that relatives are informed. (pause) That's been happening a lot."
Meanwhile, in Tamil Nadu, although the State Government has said they have the situation under control, hams from across South India are being mobilised anyway, to help in whatever ways they can. They have established stations in Vellankani, Cuddalore, Nagapattinam, Kanyakumari, Pondicherry and Thanjavur and have also set up control stations in the bigger cities, like Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata and Delhi. Gopal mans the Chennai station. His role is to co-ordinate rescue efforts and help transfer information, since most of the emergency ham stations work on batteries to save power and use long wire antennas, generally tied to a tree, and are hence relatively feeble. "Mobilising people has taken a while," says Gopal, "We have to find people with diesel cars because petrol vehicles don't work in water. We need people who drive Scorpios or Mahindra jeeps so they can travel with all the ham equipment and supplies."
In Sri Lanka too, the hams have moved to the East Coast, which has been devastated. Since there are very few hams there, hams from India are now being mobilised to travel to the island. Meanwhile, the radio waves have been inundated by people calling in to offer help. "Hams worldwide are getting involved. The Canadian hams are in the process of sending blankets, bed sheets and cooking utensils," says Gopal, "Everybody's offering aid. Everybody wants to help."
In Gujarat, for 10 days after the 2001 earthquake, hams were the only people who could communicate effectively. A number of them drove straight to Gujarat when they heard about the tragedy, using car batteries to power their radios so they could call for help whenever they found victims or unclaimed bodies.
Every time there's a cyclone, an air crash or disasters in open fields where communication is difficult, hams are called upon for help since their mobile radio systems always work. Often, one ham is stationed at the district collector's office, just so he can talk to the authorities.
Over the years, many hams have lost their lives when serving during disasters. Deepa, a young lady who went to Gujarat to help out, picked up a disease there and died. More recently, a Sri Lankan ham, who was in Iraq on a peace keeping mission as part of the UN group for communications, was shot dead.
Although hams have helped the government a number of times in emergency situations, red tapism is slowly choking amateur radio as a hobby. The laws, which were laid down in the days of the British Raj, are apparently "ridiculously outdated" today. For instance, according to the law, a ham can't leave home with his radio. Hence, ironically, every time they head out to help with disaster management, they're actually breaking the law.
However, last month, the Home Department and Ministry of Communication had a meeting in Delhi with the Amateur Radio Society of India, which seemed to finally acknowledge the efficacy of ham radio. The society submitted a paper asking for changes and has been told that it's been studied and the "departments concerned are looking into the issues."
Two teams from the Indian Institute of Hams (IIH), were at Tamil Nadu and the Andaman and Nicobar islands to provide communication and medical help. Sri. K.C.Rama Murthy I.P.S, Hon. Chairman - IIH & Commissioner for Youth Service & Sports and our Patron in Chief: Sri K.B.Krishna Murthy, VU3VIP (MP, Rajya Sabha) wished all hams lending their assistance at the relief operations the very best.
The second team includes S.Sathyapal (VU2FI), R.J.Marcus (VU2VTM), B.Suresh Kumar (VU3HDP), D.Girish Doss (VU3GDS), H.K.Vishwas (VU3HVD) and Vasuki Acharya (VU3ICA) with the team sent earlier that included, all doctors, G.Venkatesh (VU2COC), K.Suresh (VU3KHR) and B.N.Roshan Kumar (VU3BNE), and paramedic B.N.Umesh (VU3BNH), asisted in relief work. Thanks to Mr.Madhu Bangarappa (VU2SLW) for giving us ample radio equipments. IIH control room in Bangalore monitored relief operations.
Among the first ones to reach Car Nicobar on December 27 was Satyanarain D.V., a postmaster from Hyderabad who is also an amateur ham radio operator. He was deputed by the National Institute of Amateur Ham Radio Operators to establish communication links in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. "I have been camping here since then and helping in the relief operations. I have visited Latur and Gujarat during the earthquakes there earlier and Orissa when the super-cyclone hit the State but I have not seen devastation of this scale,'' he says.
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