Filipino ‘ham’ radio operators train for disasters

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The United Methodist Church is training clergy and laity disaster management teams on the use of amateur, or “ham” radios, as a vital communications tool during typhoons and landslides when the country experiences power outages.

Sponsored by United Methodist Communications, the Philippine Amateur Radio Association has this year conducted three seminars for Bishops Pete Torio Jr. of the Baguio area, Rodolfo Juan of the Manila area and Ciriaco Francisco of the Davao area, their cabinet members, lay leaders and representatives from conference disaster response teams. The last training took place June 30, 2015, in Davao City. 

“Ham” is an amateur radio station used for non-commercial exchange of messages and emergency communication.   Participants in the workshops receive a certificate of attendance that is required before registering for the licensing exam.  An operating license will be given after the individuals pass the exam.​

April Mercado, special projects manager for ICT4D Church Initiatives at United Methodist Communications, says The United Methodist Church in the Philippines can be equipped with tools and training to become better communicators through the amateur radio sets, especially in times of disasters.

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April Mercado will be leading a workshop at the Game Changers Summit, called “Crisis Communications through Ham Radio.”

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"Our dream for this life-saving project is to create a communications highway within the church so that we can work with partner organizations to provide aid to those in need, especially during times of calamities and conflict,” said Mercado.

As a result of the training, the Manila Episcopal Area has 21 newly licensed radio operators, including Bishop Juan. The Philippines has a total of 31 licensees in the Manila and Baguio areas as of July 21. Plans are under way to organize a UM ham radio club in each of the church's three episcopal areas, forming a Methodist Association of Radio Communicators.

Locating those who are trapped

Genaro Cuaresma and Roberto Vicencio, both amateur radio enthusiasts, told the United Methodist clergy and laity members how the amateur radios were a lifesaver in the aftermath of two powerful typhoons that hit the country. The radio operators were able to pick up messages from people trapped in cars during landslides and the people were rescued.

The Rev. Dave Cosmiano, district superintendent in Eastern Visayas, expressed regrets that his district did not have any communication during Typhoon Haiyan. “I had no communication with anyone in the community, even my children,” he said. “I hope more people will be trained and given operating licenses.”

Two young adults, Paolo Saniko and Gideon Ravara, recalled how hard difficult it was when Haiyan struck in 2013. Everything was shut down, with no electric power for four days, they recalled.

"When all else fails, ham radio is there,” said Roberto Jose Vicencio, secretary general of the Philippine Amateur Radio Association. Its usefulness during natural disasters and accidents, such as the typhoons in 2013 and 2014, he noted, proved that amateur radio is still at the tip of the spear of preparedness and response.

Ernani Celzo, technical services coordinator of the church’s Baguio Episcopal Area, pointed out that a technology created several decades ago could be the only surviving tool when all else fails. "We found out that ham radio became an essential communication tool when everything is wiped out in times of disaster,” he said. 

In earlier years when the weather was more moderate, amateur radios were used mostly for civic actions and coordination with the community, explained Jose Confesor, who was among the first amateur radio operators in 1964. It was only after the year 2000, when several typhoons caused severe devastation in the Philippines, that more people began using amateur radio for emergency communication, he added.

For example, amateur radio was the first to respond to the Haiyan casualties in 2013, said Cuaresma. “I had goose bumps hearing my colleague say they were safe after all houses were wiped out.  They then went to help other affected people in their neighborhood.”

Enhancing the response

Farida Kasuyo, a participant from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, called amateur radio “an aid tool for capacity building and trainings, partnering with other enthusiasts and linking with other organizations to enhance the response of area communicators.” 

United Methodist clergy attending the seminars agreed that ham radios are an essential back-up when newer communication tools cannot operate. "In an urban place like Cabanatuan City, which has been very prone to fire, power outages are most likely, hence ham radio would be a great help,” the Rev. Gilbert Pascua said.

The Rev. Noel Santiago, district superintendent in Northeast Nueva Ecija, said amateur radio is essential in the Sierra Madre terrain where some of the United Methodist local churches are situated.  "The areas have a lot of dead spots from the telecommunications networks, if not glitches,” he explained. “This radio is very conducive."

The Rev. Iris Picardal Terana, who was isolated during Typhoon Haiyan, wondering if anyone cared, offered thanks to United Methodist Communications showing “a concrete way” to address disaster communications through the use of ham radios.

"One thing I wouldn’t like to happen again is when we couldn’t communicate nor seek any help in times of disaster,” she said.

Mangiduyos is a deaconess in the United Methodist Philippines Central Conference and a professor at Wesleyan University-Philippines in Cabanatuan City.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, [email protected] or 646-369-3759.

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