The world by now is aware of the horrendous floods and mudslides that have ravaged the Southern parts of Sri Lanka. In the Tsunami of December 26th of 2004 there was no disaster management agency in Sri Lanka, and it came as a subject of the Ministry of Social Services. However, after the Tsunami a Ministry of Disaster Management was created and a separate organization as the Disaster Management Centre was formed. This centre was equipped with early warning systems, communications systems even with VHF repeaters and loud hailers to warn of Tsunamis and such. The Radio Society of Sri Lanka took part in the initial stages of its creation and offered whatever we as the RSSL could do to support the DMC. The RSSL always assured the DMC of our cooperation at any point.
When 500mm of rain fell in 24 hours and floods hit us, the President of the RSSL offered to help the DMC in whatever way possible. The DMC Communications Department requested the use of the RSSL’s Southern repeater at Deniyaya which had been installed a month before and was still under test. The RSSL readily agreed.
The RSSL immediately initiated a 24hour watch on our main repeater with a 12 member roster to handle any emergency traffic from our members who might be affected.
On Sunday the 28th the President of the RSSL received an urgent call from the Chairman of the Urban Development Authority, requesting our assistance to set up a communications link between Kalawana and Ratnapura. Kalawana was one of the worst affected areas, which was cut off from the main government coordinating centre at Ratnapura some 45 kms away. It was urgent and the Sri Lanka Air Force would airlift our teams. Time was tight and the weather was ever changing, making helicopter flights dangerous.
RSSL TEAMS ON THE MOVE:
Even though the skies were threatening, the pilots were willing to fly and frantic arrangements were being made to fly us. Within an hour and a half two teams comprising of Jaliya Lokeshwara 4S7JL, Nadika Hapuarachchi 4S6NCH, and Victor Goonetilleke 4S7VK with Dimuthu Wickremasinghe 4S7DZ were at the Colombo airport at Ratmalana. The drama was about to unfold as we looked at the skies. It was the first time such a mission was being undertaken for amateur radio in Sri Lanka and spelled out the importance and the urgency of the operation. The two MI-17 military helicopters on the tarmac added to the tense atmosphere. The authorities informed us that there was no power at Kalawana and we had to have our own power source and equipment. They would airlift us, and there on we were on our own. We were to set up at the Assistant Government Agent’s office at remote and flood ravaged Kalawana which was cut off by road and telephone, and at the Government Agent’s office at Ratnapura.
The two teams 4S7JL & 4S6NCH for Kalawana and 4S7VK & 4S7DZ for Ratnapura were airlifted sitting amidst boxes of flood relief in two military helicopters and reached the destination around 11.30 UTC, flying over flood ravaged areas. By 1200 UTC the link was established on 7060 kHz LSB, which the radio amateur community was holding clear, informing amateurs to keep the frequency clear, along with the Pidurutalagala Repeater on 145.050. Right through announcements were made by 4S7SA and 4S5SC about the operation requesting volunteers to stand by.
KALAWANA: There was no power and at night time there was a small generator running at the AGA’s office while the hospital had a generator running all the time. The Station at Ratnapura had power and was the nerve centre for relief operations to the Sabaragamuwa region. At Kalawana the main traffic in addition to food and other relief, was the movement of urgent patients from the hospital a kilometer away and the helicopter landing-pad about another half kilometre away. There had to be constant coordination between the three points at Kalawana and coordinate air movements with the Air Force operating centre at Ratnapura which did not have communications with Kalawana. That need was met by the Radio Amateur communications link provided by the Radio Society of Sri Lanka.
Kalawana AGA office 4S7RS KALAWANA
Ratnapura GA 4S7RS RATNAPURA
TRAFFIC HANDLING: Messages from the two Government agents were relayed and urgent food drops and patient movement requests from Kalawana had to be immediately communicated to the GA Ratnapura, and handed over for action to the Air Force, who would then get the flights organized and 4S7RS Ratnapura would pass on the message to 4S7RS Kalawana to ready the patients for air-lifting. Refueling was not possible at Ratnapura and Kalawana, and flights had to be coordinated with the hospital, helipad and the AGS’s office for minimum delay to conserve fuel. Initially 4S7JL or 4S6NCH had to move between the three points on a moped until they could instruct a doctor and a soldier to communicate via VHF with the base station, 4S7RS Kalawana.
Two incidents need special mention. There was an urgent case of an expectant mother who had to be moved from Kalawana hospital who could not deal with the complicated nature of her condition which was getting critical and the weather was not favourable either. The Air Force did the airlift of the mother and a trained nurse after special clearance and the baby had to be delivered in the helicopter as time was running out. In the second instance, there were 5 patients in the process of being transferred and the helicopter had been cleared for takeoff from Kalawana for Ratnapura. A few minutes later news came to Ratnapura, of a helicopter which had gone down. The mood at Ratnapura was very tense and anxious and our hearts were throbbing and frantic communications with Kalawana finally confirmed that the craft was just taking off and all was well. The incident had taken place at Baddegama where a helicopter had gone down a few minutes earlier and there was a great sigh of relief as no one had been injured thanks to the skill of the pilot. Further the radio amateur operators had to be always very responsible in handling such traffic and not stray away. This was a professional and very responsible operation.
There were also forays from the AGA’s office into other areas to determine accessibility and 4S7JL accompanied them with mobile VHF radio and was in contact with Nadika 4S6NCH holding the fort at the base station.
The teams had to work round the clock not thinking of food and sleep. We all ate flood relief biscuits and the odd packet of rice and slept on the floor. We had to take minimum baggage due to the airlifting and once we got our equipment packed, there was no space for even a sleeping bag. However, food and such were never on our minds, but the main concern of setting up the link successfully. We undertook to do it and we had to achieve the objective, but years of HF experience left us in no doubt. The help and assurances from fellow radio amateurs were unprecedented, always standing by to give us reports and relay messages should the emergency antennas lack clarity and in some instances other unknowing amateurs straying onto the emergency frequencies. Often there was consultation and information sought from club officials and the entire amateur community stood by to help as much as possible. We knew we had a huge support base even in the event of an emergency back home.
Senarath Wickremasinghe 4S6WAS and Kamal Edirisinghe 4S7AB arrived on the following day at Ratnapura which was accessible by road by then, and helped with the traffic and antennas. 4S7SA Siri was constantly watching to help and many others also stood by. Mahinda 4S7PA, RSSL Secretary was getting clearances for us and all in all it was an effort where many amateurs helped the people out in the field. There were others who would have joined if the need arose but being away from the airport could not meet the urgent nature of the mission, at such short notice initially.
By Tuesday the 30th the telephone network was returning and the main road between Ratnapura, Kalawana and Ayagama had been cleared and it was time for the RSSL to withdraw the teams after consultations with the Air Force and Government agents in Kalawana and Ratnapura and being assured that they could manage on their own. We assured them that we stand ready to re-deploy should the need arise.
The RSSL would like to thank the Sri Lanka Air Force for helping the RSSL and for the tremendous effort in this humanitarian venture and the Government Agents and staff both at Ratnapura and Kalawana for their cooperation and assistance to achieve our objectives and for supporting our effort. The RSSL teams that went over used their own equipment and should be commended for taking valuable equipment to disaster zones as well as willing to operate under trying conditions.
As you might see there was great concern, excitement, high drama and finally great relief and joy of doing something for the community through Amateur Radio. We are thankful for this opportunity, like during the Tsunami, to come out and show our willingness to help and demonstrate that amateur radio even in its simplest form of High Frequency radio can provide a lifeline. We hardly drew from other forms of communications at our disposal.
Victor Goonetilleke (4S7VK) – Media spokesman RSSL.
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THE RADIO SOCIETY AND ITS RESPONSE TO THE FLOOD DISASTER 2017