9 ham radio operators come to the aid of district officials during Cyclone Nisarga
As all modes of communication collapsed in less than half-an-hour after severe cyclone Nisarga made landfall over Raigad district last Wednesday, a group of nine independent ham radio operators using wireless communication became the eyes and ears for the district administration. Their centres? A station without a roof in Shrivardhan, the district headquarters in Alibag and vehicles in Mahabaleshwar.
The entire exercise from the afternoon of June 2 to June 5 evening (when mobile network availability returned in some areas) saw continuous relay of information about deaths, injuries, evacuations, scale of damage (trees loss, falling power lines, and network towers), relief and rehabilitation requirements, across low-lying areas in Shrivardhan, Mhasala, Dighi, Murud, Revdanda, Nagaon, Revas, and Alibag areas in Raigad from the police, local authorities and citizens to radio operators and in turn to the authorities across different parts.
The 130-year-old ham or amateur radios is usually used to establish an emergency communication network during natural calamities. The technology developed in the early 1890s in Italy, and was extensively used for the first time before and during World War I (1914-1918).
Pre-empting a collapse in communication lines due to the cyclone, the Raigad disaster management officials on June 1 reached out to Nitin Ainapure, a ham radio operator for the past 30 years. “When we were alerted about an impending cyclone, our biggest worry was what if we are cut off from all network connectivity? Ham radio came as an answer to this. We requested ham radio operators and they were more than willing to activate their network of volunteers. Their sets were set up in my office and all coastal tehsils. When the Nisarga hit Raigad, the telecom network was off in Shrivardhan, Murud, Mhasla and Tala. Ham radio volunteers played a pivotal role in ensuring constant information flow from the affected tehsils,” said Nidhi Choudhari, Raigad collector and district magistrate.
Based out of Kolhapur, Ainapure was directed to assemble a team to keep wireless systems going before and after the storm. Ainapure was part of communications network during the Kolhapur-Sangli floods last year, 2005 floods in Mumbai, and during cyclone Phyan in November 2009.
“Though cyclone Phyan was more intense, its movement was more over the sea before reaching Gujarat. However, it did not cause as much devastation as Nisarga,” said Ainapure.
By June 2, teams were in place and trial runs began. The first team at Shrivardhan city included Amol Deshpande, Sunil Unde, Yogesh Sadare, and Chandu Chavan, the second from Wilson Point in Mahabaleshwar led by Ainapure and Bhau Chaugule, and the third from the collector’s office as headquarters in Alibag led by visually impaired ham radio operator Dilip Bapat, Amit Gurav and Mandar Gupte. “While Bapat only has 10% vision since 2015, his hearing ability is best among all of us. He can deduce codes, muffled messages, and relay them immediately to authorities concerned,” said Chaugule.
On June 3 (day of landfall), the Alibag team used the police’s wireless system while other teams used antennae kept at a height of 10m for smooth signal transmission atop a hill in Mahabaleshwar and a building in Shrivardhan. The team at Mahabaleshwar and Shrivardhan were charging their systems using their vehicle engines as there was no electricity. “When the cyclone made landfall, one of the antennae in Mahabaleshwar broke, and the signal transmission to Raigad collapsed. A similar incident happened in Shrivardhan,” said Ainapurne, adding that amid the storm both groups ensured antennae were fixed. “Anything could have happened. We were lucky to have made it through,” said Deshpande, adding that the Shirvardhan station sustained severe damages with no rooftop and a partially dilapidated building due to the cyclone.
Sagar Pathak, disaster management officer, Raigad said, “Using information given to us, we were able to direct the National Disaster Response Force to the spots, provide immediate restoration measures, and ensure major roads were functional again. As there was a blackout in communications post the cyclone, this information allowed us to prepare preliminary damage assessments.”
Experts have mixed views about the technology. “Ham radios are not necessarily the only mode of communication during calamities. Satellite phones, very high and ultra-high frequency networks are all available modes. Ham radios are the last resort when everything else fails,” said Mahesh Narvekar, chief officer, disaster management cell, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.
G Padmanabhan, former emergency analyst, United Nations Development Programme, said, “Using ham radio is part of the standard operating procedure during any calamity. This is a robust system that does not easily get disconnected or disrupted during disasters. Where satellite phones and other equipment have their limitations, this remains a reliable and effective tool for communication frequently being used across
Odisha, Kerala, and Maharashtra.”
HOW THE TEAM WORKS
Each team member is identified with a unique code. For example, Ainapure is VU2CAN while Deshpande is VU2YZO. “This helps us identify each other and the location faster. At the same time, rather than using long words that may or may not be comprehended, we use codes to ensure the message is received. When we say ‘QSL’ it means ‘did you read me?’, and if we get a response saying ‘QSL’, it means the message has been received. QTH means where do you live. One sided battery outage is reduced through this,” said Ainapure. Deshpande said the three-hour landfall completion over Shrivardhan to Murud was the ‘golden period’ when only the ham radio network was functioning and nothing else. “The cyclone had moved Shrivardhan first by splitting from the sea, and then again moving back into the sea, and finally making landfall over Diveagar. During this time, our antenna survived a massive wind speed of 120 kmph, while we were taking shelter in our vehicles,” he said.