Chennai

Chennai HAMs walk into Nivar

An antenna being installed for HAM radio communication at Cuddalore. Photo: Special Arrangement  

For K.M. Devadas and Aravind Balasubramanian, the fourth week of November took an unexpected turn. ‘Turn’ is an understatement. ‘Twist’ is closer to the truth, as they would be walking into a cyclone. HAM enthusiasts, these residents of Chennai had accepted an invitation from the Cuddalore District Collectorate to set up HAM stations, both VHF and HF, across the district.

If Nivar proved overwhelming and all other communication systems failed, they would have to keep the messages flowing back and forth between the Collectorate in Cuddalore and six local administrative offices, including the block development offices in Kumaratchi and Parangipettai and the town panchayat office in Killai and the revenue divisional office in Cuddalore.

K.M. Devadas

K.M. Devadas  

“During Nivar, on November 22 (Sunday), there was a call from the Cuddalore District Collector. We were in Cuddalore on Monday afternoon, and had set up seven radio stations, including VHF and HF, by Tuesday night,” says Devadas (VU2DH). “Six HAM enthusiasts from Bengaluru joined us. While the on-site team was managing the seven stations in the district, there were many HAMs from Chennai who were on standby on HF which is capable of transmitting/ receiving messages all over the globe.”

Says Aravind (VU2ABS), “We had taken a lot of equipment, only that we were short of people. Due to the COVID-19 situation, we could not raise a large team of HAM radio volunteers. Many of the HAMs are senior citizens and therefore we cannot get them as volunteers and put them at risk. And because it was the middle of the week, youngsters were all busy with their office work.”

Aravind Balasubramanian

Aravind Balasubramanian  

The disadvantage was partly offset by the fact that HAMs were on standby, not only from Chennai. “There were local HAMs from Cuddalore, Puducherry and Chidambaram, who were on standby, operating from their locations,” elaborates Aravind.

As what was feared did not come to pass, the HAMs did not have to undertake any disaster communication exercise.

“If communication systems had broken down on account of the cyclone, the district administration would expected the HAMs to not only provide communication support from the stations, but also head to the field,” explains Devadas. “During the 2004 Tsunami, we HAMs were on the field — in Cuddalore and Puducherry — standing shoulder-to-shoulder with army personnel who were doing the rescue work, and we were noting down the details and passing them to the administration.”

Devadas underscores how the team of HAM enthusiasts were prepared and equipped to handle such a turn of events.

“We had radios in our car, and walkie-talkies,” discloses Devadas. “I had taken six sets of equipment, which included radio transceivers, cables, regulated power supply and DC power supply and antenna — they altogether cost ₹3 lakh. The five HAMs from Bengaluru also brought their equipment, but they did not have a full set. At the Collectorate, there was use for only two sets of equipment. The rest of the sets I gave to the HAMs from Bengaluru. With these instruments, it is possible to install a HAM communication system in just half and hour, anywhere in the globe.”

Devadas and Aravind, who were at the Cudallore District Collectorate along with Arulmozhi, District Informatics Officer (VU2OHM), worked on a shift basis, each working for two or three hours, before handing over the reins to the other.

Devadas recalls how installing the antenna atop the water tank of the Collectorate building took some doing.

“It was raining and windy, but we could not obviously take an umbrella with us as we clambered up the ladder and got on top of the water tank. We were in the rain for two to three hours as we set up the antenna.”

Devadas calls HAM radio the oldest social media, and that it is geared towards public service.

“We volunteer to help out in emergency situations, spending out of our pockets to meet petrol and travel expenses, and nobody has till date given us one rupee. No letter of appreciation either. We do not ask for it or expect it, as our aim is just service,” says Devadas.

He points out that HAM hobbyists engaged in this volunteering work are either mostly well-established professionals or businesspersons.

Devadas, aged 63, lives in Kolathur and runs a cargo-handling shipping company.

Aravind, aged 47, lives in Kotturpuram and is in the business of making amateur radio antennas and accessories.

Wider connectivity
  • Though not many HAM operators could turn up for on-site operations at Cuddalore, due to the pandemic, the communication system was still robust, thanks to access to the EcoLink network.
  • Aravind Balasubramanian, one of the two HAM enthusiasts who were lynchpins in the HAM radio communication system established at Cuddalore district, points out that “the local HAMs from Cuddalore and Puducherry were on standby from their locations, as were HAMs from Chennai and Chidambaram. They were connected through a different route. They were able to access the repeater located in the Yercaud hill, which provides access to the whole of South India.”
  • Aravind continues, “We were able to reach wherever the Yercaud Hill repeater’s footprints were. The Yercaud repeater is connected to EchoLink, which provides access over the Internet. So, other HAMs from anywhere in the world can access us through EchoLink through that repeater.”
  • “You can connect with people from any part of the world either through the EchoLink app in their phones or through an application they have downloaded and installed in their computers. It is accessible only to HAMs. You need to have a HAM radio licence to be able to access the EchoLink network.”

Are HAMs a dwindling tribe?

“Many people think so; because there is cellphone, and you can get it to ring from any part of the world. But when it fails, what will you do? It invariably fails, when there is a flood, a cyclone or an earthquake. We see ourselves as dealing with disaster communication. So, at least for emergency situations, people should be trained and equipped to offer HAM communication.”

As with any area of knowledge, training youngsters in HAM communication holds hope for it.

“If we organise 100 students to learn HAM radio communication, only 20 or 30 would appear for the exams,” says Devadas, who is a member of the Madras Amateur Radio Society. In HAM exams meant for getting the HAM licence, two grades — restricted and general grade — have to be cleared.

Says Devadas, “I received my HAM licence when I was 30 years old. An eighteen-year-old is able to handle these exams with greater ease than I did. Young students tend to learn faster.”

Both Devadas and Aravind are members of the Amateur Radio Society of India.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2021 12:15:44 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/chennai-hams-walk-into-nivar/article33202213.ece

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