Second century of disaster communications

January 17th, 2013, Published in Articles: EngineerIT

by Hans van Groenendaal, features editor, EngineerIT

In this monthly feature, Hans van de Groenendaal ZS6AKV, executive chairman of the South African Amateur Radio Development Trust (SAARDT), looks at various technologies and activities that drive amateur radio. SAARDT is dedicated to the development of amateur radio in South Africa with a special interest in the youth. The organisation is funded by donations and supports the South African Radio League and SA AMSAT.

John Streeter (callsign O-A4Z) in his
“radio station” in 1926.

Cape Argus 6 March 1926.

Radio amateurs worldwide will be dedicating World Amateur Radio Day on 18 April 2013 to disaster communication with the theme “Amateur radio – entering its second century of disaster communications”.

The first recorded use of amateur radio supporting communications during a disaster dates back to 1913, during severe flooding in he USA mid-west.

Nobel Laurate, Jack Kirby, who received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2000 for his development of the integrated circuit, related the story of how in the late twenties his father – who ran a small electric company with customers scattered across the rural western part of Kansas – used amateur radio to communicate.

“While I was in high school, a huge ice storm knocked down most of the poles that carried the telephone and electric power lines. My father worked with radio amateurs to communicate with areas where customers had lost their power and phone services,” said Kirby.

“South African radio amateurs also have a proud record of providing disaster communication, disasters such as the Westdene bus disaster, the Laingsburg floods and cyclone Demoina, just to mention a few,” said Rassie Erasmus, president of the South African Radio League (SARL).

More recently radio amateurs were involved in the search for a missing aircraft in Mozambique, providing communication links back to South Africa from where the search was coordinated. The amateur radio maritime mobile network daily assists yachts with weather reports along the South African coastline and has on many occasions assisted yachts in trouble by coordinating rescue operations.

The use of amateur radio to aid the community is not new to South Africa. The Cape Argus of 6 March 1926 ran a lead story with the heading “Radio finds San Francisco widow’s kin in Congo – sister’s plea flashed to African wilds! Reaching into the heart of darkest Africa, the radio has found, for Mrs. Lydia Nelson of San Francisco, a brother lost to her for 25 years.”

Mrs. Nelson had read about the successes of Cape Town radio amateur John Streeter, and in a passionate letter asked him to use radio to find her brother. At the time radio was in its infancy. John, very much the pioneer at the time, sent a description to three other “radio stations” and asked them to transmit the information. Within three days Mrs. Nelson’s brother was found, not in the Congo but in Windhoek, South West Africa (now Namibia).

The Cape Argus ended the article with “Incidents such as this bring home to one the wonderful power of the wireless broadcasting station. Imagine it! A man sits in a room in Cape Town in front of a small circular object knows as the microphone and is able to talk directly to the whole of South Africa. He is able to make a direct personal appeal by word of mouth and in fact wields a tremendous power. And yet there are still people who gravely question whether ‘this wireless’ has come to stay or is it only a passing fancy!”

The question often asked is: with cellphones so ubiquitous, do we still need radio amateurs? Certainly! Immediately after a disaster, such as an earthquake or a tsunami. If the formal communications systems are not destroyed, they crash due to extreme overload. Radio amateurs with a transceiver and some copper wire get communication going from just about anywhere in no time. Earthquakes in Japan, India and Hawaii have proved that the first communication from a stricken area comes from radio amateurs. It is no different in South Africa, when the Laingsburg flood happened in 1981, the only communication during the first few days between the police in Laingsburg and the Cape Town Disaster Centre was provided by Cape Town radio amateurs who immediately set up an HF radio link.

This agility is possible because radio amateurs are widespread and can set up their own radio relay links to meet whatever conditions exist at the time. It is however essential that these relay stations outside the disaster area are well equipped with antennas, as the makeshift station invariably works under adverse conditions. In modern times that often becomes more difficult as local councils place unreasonable restrictions on antenna towers and structures in the name of being environmentally-friendly. Little attention is given to radio amateurs who provide a valuable service to their own and other communities.

While we may not be using radio amateurs to locate a brother in the deepest African jungle, they still help stricken yachts at sea as well as providing communication services at sporting events, cycle tours and motor rallies.

Congratulations to “radio hams” on a century of helping others with communication when it is most needed.

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