Cyclone Nisarga: How HAM operators helped on Day Zero

Updated: Jun 15, 2020, 08:51 IST | Vinod Kumar Menon | Mumbai

Local radio enthusiasts helped keep official communication lines open during cyclone

Dilip Bapat, who set up the HAM service and equipment in the Disaster Management Cell, with the handsets
Dilip Bapat, who set up the HAM service and equipment in the Disaster Management Cell, with the handsets

'DM (Disaster Management) control calling Srivardhan', 'DM control calling Roha', 'DM control calling Mangaon…' etc were the repeated lines that were buzzing on channel 144.125 megahertz of HAM radio making inquiries every few minutes about the extend of the damage due to cyclone Nisarga on June 3.

And behind these calls, was a visually disabled, senior citizen Dilip Bapat (62), who was controlling the HAM control room at the district disaster management at the collector office, with his three colleagues – Mandar Gupte, Amit Gurav and Yogesh Sadare, reporting to Sagar Phatak, the district disaster officer.

Dilip Bapat with his family
Dilip Bapat with his mother Sulabha (83) (Center), wife Sukadha (54) (right), and two children (back)

Interestingly, this was also, Bapat's first encounter with a live disaster, witnessing natures fury, in his five years of being an amateur HAM operator.

With only 8 percent vision in left eye and 12 percent in right, Bapat did not allow his disability to come in way of his passion for radio networking, nor the district administration, especially collector Nidhi Choudhary, had any doubt in his ability.

Dilip Bapat

And the June 3, cyclone Nisarga, only made his belief stronger that 'mother nature is powerful and it hardly take time for destroying manmade structures and damaging the green lungs,' a thought that struck him within minutes of Nisarga, made the landfall around 12.30 pm on that day.

And came the first distress message from his counterpart stationed at Mhasla taluka, within minutes of the landfall, informing about a huge tree branch falling on the tehsildar office building, luckily no casualty reported, though the staff were still inside.

Dilip Bapat

"I cannot see anything when it turns dark and in light, I can only sense the presence of someone, if they stand close to me. But I sensed the (Nisarga) situation was turning grim, every time, I received the ground happenings, from my counterpart over HAM radio, located at different parts of the district," recalled Bapat.

A childhood liking for radios, sowed the seeds of developing a hobby as he grew and soon became a passion, today he has large collection of radios (some imported) with different frequencies (single side band frequency (ssbf), very high frequency (vhf) etc and the only licensed HAM radio operator in entire Alibaug.

Dilip Bapat

Two days before the cyclone
On June 1, Sagar Phatak, district disaster officer, had phoned Bapat asking if he was free and could come over to the collector office, where he was informed about the cyclone likely to hit Raigad district on June 3.

Bapat added, "The disaster management only had a base station radio of 25 volts. And I had to set up the entire HAM radio network, and, which I agreed and I contacted our other club members from Pune, Kolhapur, Navi Mumbai etc and they all agreed."

Dilip Bapat

Bapat added, "For any HAM operation and for communication networking, setting a frequency tuning is important, and R B Patil, senior inspector (wireless), Raigad, helped to give a dedicated frequency line 144.125 megahertz on their wireless system."

Nitin Ainapure, a Ham operator, who had worked extensively in numerous rescue operations earlier hails from Kolhapur, he was given the task of setting up repeater antenna in Mahableshwar, but due to bad weather condition, he had to face initial glitches in setting up antenna's at a higher altitude, which was done successfully by June 2. A similar set up was done at Shirvardhan handled by HAM operator Amol Deshpande, which helped us to make a triangle connecting Alibag, Shrivardhan and Mahableshwar for HAM communication, a day before the cyclone.

Dilip Bapat

And for other talukas within the district, we connected the ham radio frequency to the police station wireless sets, and a nayab tehsildar, was made incharge for sending distress messages through HAM radio.

Effective communication was the key
Bapat, added, "I have always learnt, world over, HAM radio, has always played a very effective tool of communication during natural calamity or any disaster, when mobile networks gets snipped off, leaving a gap between the rescuers and those to be rescued."

And it is this sharp audio listening ability of the HAM operator, who swiftly pass on the distress messages to the rescue team, giving specific details of the location and nature of distress call, that help in mobilising the rescue team and thereby minimise the delay in providing assistance. Bapat was using his Digital radios, where the audios are very clearly heard.

Bapat added, "In cyclone Nisarga, with power supply disrupted, mobile and telephone lines were snapped, the only mode of communication for the police department was their wireless network, whereas the NDRF team had their satellite phones, and the civil administration had to rely on HAM radio with inverter battery's, for distress messages and mobilising rescue teams."

Also, the Indian Metrological Department (IMD), had given a live connector to the satellite forecast of cyclone, which was showing us minute by minute details, about the landfall. This was helping the disaster and HAM radio team at control room, to communicate effectively with the police, NDRF and other rescue teams at ground zero.

Pro bono service
Interestingly, all the HAM operators, who took part in the disaster management of cyclone Nisarga, had rendered their service and even Ham radio equipment's purely on a pro bono basis.

When asked the reason for same, Bapat, said, "We have learnt and obtained license for operating HAM radio, due to our passion and hobby. And if our service is used, at time, when there is a disaster, it is our honour to help the state administration and agencies working selflessly for saving and protecting lives and property. We are a drop in the ocean, in entire disaster management service."

"The district collector had already moved over 15000 people staying near coast lines to safety, well in advance before the cyclone did the landfall. Large number of trees got uprooted and tin sheets from houses flew, mass causality was averted in the district because of timely intervention of the police and district administration," said Bapat.

Speaking to MiDDAY Nidhi Choudhary, district collector admitted that with all communications network shutting down (power and mobile networks) HAM radio came in rescue. "We have been trained during our IAS about HAM usages in disaster and we were fortunate to have the best team to have done a wonderful job, amidst their challenges."

Vision issue let to loss of job
Bapat was employed with Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) as a clerk at Alibag and in 2014, after putting 37 years of service, he was declared medically unfit for service by the district civil surgeon, due to his diminishing vision. And MSRTC had no other job for him and he lost my job, which paid him Rs 35,000 salary and he became jobless, thereafter."

It was then, I started taking up HAM radio networking seriously and could devote more time to fulfil my childhood passion. My wife Sukhada, a school teacher, children Tushar and Manashree and mother Sulabha (83), supported me to live my hobby.

Vision a problem since birth
As a child, born and brought up in Alibag, Bapat's father Neelkanth, was working as clerk with the District Police Superintendent office, and was fond of radios – murphy, boost, Philips, were some well known brands of radio, they owned.

Bapat recall, "As a child, I always was curious to know, how the musician and singer would play music sitting in such a small radio. I would often open the radio and in the process would spoil it and would be bashed by my father. As a child as I grew, I was having high power glasses, and the number only increased as I grew big and my passion for radios also increased."

The dream was to be an engineer, but I landed doing my graduation in commerce and took clerical job, but my passion for radio never died and I was trained by mentor Vilas Rabade (73), from Pune.

Advice for future generation
Ham radio operation is slowly gaining popularity world over, including India. India has many HAM radio operator clubs and the popular amongst them are Chennai and Bengaluru.

Also now the fourth year engineering (telecommunication) students have a chapter on HAM radio and setting frequency, Bapat visits some of the Engineering colleges with his radio sets for giving students a live practical session.

And the most popular amongst them all is the 'Jota Joti' activity every year held between October 18-20, where school students participating in scouts and guide is given on air worldwide radio experience.

"Every school should make it compulsory and give special training to children, as they have good grasping ability, and the need of the hour is to give survival training in disaster management," Bapat concluded.

'Rare congenital birth defect' treating Ophthalmologist
Dr Yatish Doshi, the treating Ophthalmologist, from Alibaug said, "He (Bapat) has been diagnosed with myopic degeneration with staphyloma, one of the rare congenital birth defects, which might have started at the age of twenty years, and gradually increased with his age."

"We have already operated him for his cataract and retinal detachment in right eye and have implanted silicone and lenses, few years ago. He is at present wearing thick glasses right eye (+1.5 and -3.5 cylinder) and left eye (-11), which is not common. We are retaining his further vision loss with vitamin supplements, but as age progress, his vision will further deteriorate. At present he has 8 percent and 12 percent vision left in both eye," explained the doctor.

Dr Doshi further added, "His left eye too needs a cataract surgery, but we fear the risk of retinal detachment or chances of complete vision loss, due to which we are deliberately delaying the surgery."

Bapat has always been a positive person by nature and he never allowed his disability to come in way of his passion for HAM radio, the doctor added.

Coded HAM message decoded

According to Bapat, world over HAM operators understand only Coded Phonetic words. Amateur HAM operator is given more weightage in Europe and other foreign countries and is considered as added qualification for any job.

Phonetic word – Delta India Lima India Papa
Decode – DILP

Phonetic word- Alpha Lima India Bravo Alpha Goal
Decode- Alibag

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