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From the Archives: The South Asian Tsunami of 2004 – Politics & Emergency Aid (Amateur Radio)

Date: 2014-12-23
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When All Else Fails: Amateur Radio Lends Invaluable Messaging Support
By Bob Josuweit

Originally published in our March, 2005 issue   

As the Indian Ocean tsunami wiped out everything in its path, a worldwide broadcast for help triggered an international amateur radio response to lend its own unique form of assistance.  Ham Radio operators throughout the region immediately began to report on the destruction around them and coordinate help and assistance for the disaster area.  In addition, amateur operators utilized radio equipment that would assist on land, at sea, and from space. 

Bharathi Prasad, amateur radio callsign VU2RBI, in Port Blair on the Ackman Islands, was talking on the air to an Indonesian ham radio operator.  "All of a sudden, I felt tremors at around 6.29 AM and realized it to be an earthquake and shouted ‘tremors’ into the microphone and rushed out of the room raising alarm alerting others."  After checking that everyone was safe and that the antennas were still on the roof, Prasad got back on the radio and contacted ham radio operators in Thailand and on the India mainland.  Both confirmed the tremors at their locations. 

While the news of tsunami devastation was quickly transmitted around the world, the situation in Andaman and Nicobar Islands was not known.  Prasad said she "went on broadcasting information about the situation to anyone who could hear my signals.  Simultaneously, I have sent my team members to the office of the Chief Secretary, Government of Andaman & Nicobar Islands expressing our willingness to extend our support for establishing emergency communication for the help of administration." 

The Deputy Commissioner (DC) requested their services the next day.  Other ham radio operators proceeded to Car Nicobar Island the next morning on a military aircraft and established communications between Port Blair and Nicobar.  Hundreds of messages were passed each day between the main land and the affected areas.  One report said the number of messages reached 30,000.  The only link for thousands of Indians and other country people who were worried about their friends and families in the Islands was ham radio "Our station in the control room became the center of messages between Port Blair & Nicobar Island," said Prasad.  "Survivors in Car Nicobar were communicating with their relatives in Port Blair through our stations.  Other hams of the country located in the main land have helped us in relaying the messages whenever there was skip between our stations in the Islands.

Similar stories took place in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other countries that were in the tsunami’s path.  Amateur Radio was such an important communications link, that the Prime Minister of India and the President of Sri Lanka wanted a ham radio station at their homes to keep in touch with the disaster area. 


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Amateur radio operators were also prepared to handle communications from sea, land, and air.  Immediately following the tsunami an amateur radio link was established with sailing and cruising vessels in the immediate area.  These vessels are set up to send email via radio.  The radio signal is received at a land-based station and is relayed via the Internet to its destination.  By checking server logs, network administrators were able to check on the status of each of the stations that had been heard from. 

Winlink developer Steve Waterman, K4CJX, said stations in the disaster area were sending messages to "Winlink 2000" PMBO mailboxes in Perth, New South Wales, Qatar, the Netherlands, Austria, and South Africa.  These messages were then being relayed to their destination.  Unlike other types of systems set up for emergency communications, this system is used daily by 6,384 Winlink 2000 users passing mail to approximately 81,000 recipients.

Ham radio operators that could not directly hear stations in the affected area quickly formed an international tsunami relief network utilizing a VoIP software called Echolink.  This enabled local stations in the disaster area to communicate via radio to a station that had Internet service.  Then a conference bridge network connected over 60 nodes throughout India, England, Canada, and the United States.  A similar network was used throughout the Caribbean and southeastern U.S. during last year’s hurricane season and the Shuttle disaster in Texas.  With the links established many hams were able to listen to disaster communications a half a world away from a VHF handheld radio or via their computer.  In addition one of the many satellites carrying amateur radio, AMSAT AO-51, was made available to the disaster area to store and forward messages around the world. 

As relief agencies began to set up in the disaster area, many had a ham radio operator as part of their team.  Agencies such as the International Red Cross and the Salvation Army kept in contact with their field units via ham radio until other forms of communications could be established.  Even the U.S. and Canadian Navy were listening in to local amateur radio communications in order to coordinate their response. 

"I wish I could scream aloud and tell people in some high places that when all else is dead, shortwave is alive," said Victor Goonetilleke, President of the Radio Society of Sri Lanka.  "What do you do when your power goes out, telephones go dead and you can't even charge your batteries of your GTS (Global Telephone System) or Mobile Phone?  We had our Morse key handy if we had to operate with just 1 or 2 watts but the batteries held." 

At the time of this article, Bob Josuweit, WA3PZO, was the Public Service Editor for CQ Communications magazine, covering amateur radio operators serving in the public interest on both a local and national basis.  For more details, see:

See our other archived Asian Tsunami stories: 

The Hungry Sea: An International Response for Global Public Safety
by Shawn Alladio

Tsunami Rescue & Recovery: Inter-Agency Politics in a Disaster Zone
by Jeremy Zakis

Are We Safe? Tsunami Dangers on America’s Coasts
by Ron Eggers




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