“We would like to join-up with the National Disaster Management Centre in some small way, to help them with emergency communication work,” Radio Society of Sri Lanka official, Victor Goonetilleke said during Tuesday’s public lecture on Disaster Risk Reduction, organised by LIRNEasia, a regional ICT think-tank.
With some 200 members under its umbrella, the Radio Society of Sri Lanka is not new to disaster communications in the island.
The society played a crucial role during the 2004 Asian tsunami that claimed over 30,000 lives when giant tidal waves struck the island’s shores displacing about one million people.
When electricity lines, fixed and mobile communications failed in the worst affected areas, radio ham’s maintained communicated links on relief work from the tsunami-hit Andaman and Nicobar Islands off the Indian coast to Hambantota, in Sri Lanka’s deep south.
In Sri Lanka, radio ham’s ran a short wave radio link between Hambantota, the Prime Minister's disaster management office in Colombo, and state agencies in the affected area."When everything goes down, short wave remains alive," an enthusiastic Goonetilleke said.
Their valuable role was acknowledged by the late Sir Arthur C Clarke, who put forward the idea of geo-stationary satellites for communication.
"We might never know how many lives they (radio ham’s) saved and how many minds they put at ease, but we owe a debt to Marconi’s faithful followers," the long-time Sri Lanka resident, Clarke wrote in the Wired Magazine in February 2005.
But their public spiritedness hit a roadblock, thereafter, with the defence ministry blocking attempts to clear equipment or renew licenses during the height of the decades long ethnic conflict.
Three-years after the war ended in May 2009, defence ministry has rolled-back the red tape, offering hope for radio ham’s to renew their passion and volunteer their services for community work.
"From January we have little less red tape to get our equipment cleared, to make our members capable of meeting disasters," a grateful Goonetilleke said.
Gamini Hettiarachchi, Director General of the National Disaster Management Center, was keen to discuss the radio ham’s offer.
“We will certainly like to hear how you can help us. We like to join with all civil societies,” said Hettiarachchi, a retired army major general.
The society made a similar offer to state disaster management agencies months after the tsunami, but received a lukewarm response.
The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka disaster mitigation plan, has provisions to integrate radio ham’s in national disaster work.