Philippine Amateur Radio Volunteers Continue to Fill Communication Gap
In the devastating aftermath of what some weather experts are calling the most severe typhoon ever, Philippine Amateur Radio volunteers are providing communication support for governmental and relief agencies. In many cases, ham radio is the only communication available, as Typhoon Haiyan — called “Yolanda” in the Philippines — took out the telecommunication infrastructure as well as electrical power over a wide area. Hardest hit was the city of Tacloban, the capital of Leyte province. Officials now anticipate the death toll could rise as high as 10,000. Another 500,000 or more have been left homeless — some largely without food and water — awaiting the arrival of outside assistance. Ramon Anquilan, DU1UGZ, of the Philippine Amateur Radio Association (PARA), reports that amid the chaos, Ham Radio Emergency Operations (HERO) stations are helping authorities and residents. He said RADNET (an emergency network) members Nathan Eamiguel, DU5AOK, Vilma Eamiguel, DU5VIE, and the members of their local club are working hard.
“Their HF station is located on the second floor of the Tacloban City Hall, powered by a generator maintained by the local government unit,” Anquilan said. “Two meter band communication is simplex, because there is no electricity to power their repeater.” He explained that VHF operators are serving as “field personnel” to handle various errands, verifying information and coordinating with other agencies. “The officers led by Nathan, DU5AOK, dispatch their members based on the priority traffic handled by the HF station,” Anquilan said.
According to DU1UGZ, the Tacloban HERO station was used by the Red Cross to track a relief vehicle to verify the welfare of its volunteers, who had been stopped and ransacked by storm victims impatient for aid to arrive. Other requests for help came from the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) regional office in Tacloban, which needed hand-held radio capability.
Relief agencies in the Philippines are overwhelmed. The US has sent a cadre of US Marines with relief supplies, and ships carrying more supplies are on the way.
“Basically, the Tacloban and other stations in the disaster areas permit only outbound traffic as priority messages,” Anquilan explained. “This is a policy decision by NTS Co-Chair Jojo, DU1VHY, and as requested by RADNET. We can classify the messages as follows: ‘We Survived’ messages; institutions/government agency messages to their central or partner offices in Manila, and urgent requests for specific assistance or relief.” He said it takes a minute or two to send each message, depending on band conditions, and the rate of traffic per hour is 40 to 60 messages.
Relief and retrieval operations are moving slowly, and the HERO operations are probably going to remain active for another week. Anquilan said the telecommunications providers have been steadily restoring cellular mobile services, and on November 11 there was intermittent, limited coverage in Tacloban.
“As the primary telecoms services are restored, there will be less reliance on the Amateur radio service in Tacloban,” Anquilan said. “This will mean a more difficult period, because the remote areas not reached yet by government and other agencies will now demand communication links.” Anquilan predicted that ham radio assets will be spread thinly, resulting in gaps.
In his report, Anquilan mentioned another local club, ACCESS 5, attached to responding government agencies and relief organizations. A military HF station is linked with the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Mitigation Council, located inside Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City. “However ACCESS 5 is using VHF very effectively, acting as guides for rescue and retrieval teams in the field, just like some RADNET volunteers,” said Anquilan.
In Eastern Samar, Lester Price, DV5PO/ZL5PO, based in Borongan, is providing situation reports. Price and his wife had a very lucky escape. They held onto the doors of their house for 4 hours, until the storm surge receded. The surge claimed some 500 lives in the coastal barangay or village.
Another HF station activated by the Department of Science and Technology is using equipment from Nathan, DU5AOK. In DU7 (Cebu, Bohol and Negros Oriental islands, including the island province of Siquijor), the Cebuano Amateur Radio League (CARL) has dispatched a team to Bantayan, located in the northern tip of Cebu. This municipality was the hardest hit in Cebu, with an estimated 90 percent of structures leveled by the storm. The CARL team is handling HF traffic. Another component is the Chocolate Hills Amateur Radio League (CHARL) based in Tagbilaran City in Bohol, an area struck last month by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake and still recovering. The CHARL club station DX7BC and members Gerry Marmito, DU7AU, Ador Lamoste, DU7AL, are standing by to monitor and relay messages between Tacloban and the principal receiving stations.
A third DU7 contingent, NORAD-7, from Dumaguete City is handling long-range communication to the Dumaguete local government unit passing traffic from Tacloban to their area in Negros Island. In DU6 (Panay, Negros Occidental and neighboring islands) Bobby Garcia, DU6BG, in Iloilo; Iver Astronomo, DV6ILA, and Arnel, DV6WAV, in the Roxas Provincial Capitol are embedded with the Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Mitigation Council (PDRRMC).
Scattered throughout the Philippine archipelago are stations receiving outgoing traffic from Tacloban and the other affected areas. Among them are Jojo, DU1VHY; Thelma, DU1IVT; Romy Isidro, DV1SMQ, and Max, 4F1BYN — acting as the main receiving stations on a rotating basis since HERO activation began. Other stations are also active in receiving outbound welfare traffic, mainly to inform family members and relatives of their conditions. Additional operators are on standby to relay traffic as necessary. Another facet of the operation is the use of EchoLink by CARE-4 in Naga City and COMPASS in Tondo, Manila.
Anquilan said the news media have begun noticing ham radio but fail to understand the important role the HERO network has been playing in the wake of the disaster. “Although there’s some very brief TV exposure, they are yet to adequately report on the voluntary service it provides, and the emergency communications to the agencies and community in times of disaster,” he said. — Thanks to Jim Linton VK3PC, Chairman IARU Region 3 Disaster Communications Committee