On February 27, at 03:34 local time an earthquake rating a magnitude of 8.8 on the Richter Scale devastated the Chilean region of Maule. In the minutes that followed the quake, the communication system simply collapsed. Only 15 minutes after the disaster, an amateur radio operator (or “ham”) called Alejandro Jara (or as it is known in the amateur radio universe Charlie Echo 3 Juliet Whisky Foxtrot) broadcast the first information from the ground. Very soon, other hams joined Alejandro providing information about locating missing persons, condition of roads and support for the emergency administration.
I visited Chile few days after the main earthquake and experienced an aftershock of 7.2 (see blog entry ”A moving moment“ ). The GSM network was completely out of order almost immediately and it was impossible to make telephone calls for several hours after the quake. It is in critical situations like this when the voluntary work of amateur radio operators becomes priceless.
Yesterday I had the opportunity of meeting some European “hams” in an exhibition they organised in the hall of the European Parliament. Their passion for the air waves is admirable. “Hams” often build their own equipment and spend endless hours talking to fellow radio operators from every corner of the world (actually also form outer space, since they can even connect with the International Space Station, as I could see in the exhibition).
Some think of them as an unusual bunch of people with no real impact on our daily lives but, when it comes to crisis, they often become heroes. The amateur radio service provides flexible networks that are independent of vulnerable infrastructures like telephone cables or GSM antennae, and transmit in frequencies that are not easily overloaded. Radio operators are aware of their potential in case of crisis and have established well coordinated structures for emergency response that provided vital services during the Tsunami in 2004, the hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005, or more recently, during the earthquakes of L’Aquila, Haiti and Chile.
The expressions “Humanitarian Aid” and “Crisis Response” often suggest large organisations delivering aid and heavy loads in helicopters or trailers. But, very often, it is about the job of anonymous people that continue to broadcast information and hope from damaged equipment and fallen antennae, as they like to say, “when everything else fails”.