In the path of destruction

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 August, 2006, 12:00am

MOST OF US batten down the hatches and prepare for the onslaught when a typhoon warning is issued.

But when the warning reaches typhoon signal No3, a team of radar specialists from the Hong Kong Observatory begins its arduous duties.

Carrying a backpack filled with clothes and food, 48-year-old Fung Ching-biu, a radar specialist mechanic, heads for the Tai Mo Shan weather radar station, the highest mountain in Sai Kung, to ensure that all the equipment is in full working order. There are three weather radar stations in Hong Kong; the others are at Tate's Cairn and Tai Lam Chung.

After leaving the safety of his car, he struggles in the strong winds to walk to the weather station. It is a tough five-minute walk in strong cross-winds.

'If typhoon signal No3 continues or turns stronger, we have to stay here to make sure all the equipment is working properly. Sometimes me and my colleagues need to stay there overnight,' Mr Fung said.

The station houses valuable electronic equipment, including a wind speed detector and the all-important radar, which is protected by a large radome.

The main function of the weather radar station is to detect the wind speed and the amount of rain in the atmosphere, and it is critical that all equipment is checked on a regular basis to ensure it works. The station automatically sends the latest weather report to the Hong Kong Observatory, which alerts the public.

'The reason we stay here is to make sure all the equipment works normally. My colleague and I need to patrol all the facilities here, such as the radar system and the dynamo,' Mr Fung said.

'We are accustomed to 'camping' here. Some of us even stay here for five consecutive days.'

It is often said that the safest place to be during a typhoon is indoors. But Mr Fung has experienced problems indoors.

In 1983, when he was on duty at Chek Lap Kok, the typhoon signal No10 was hoisted as typhoon Ellen approached Hong Kong. It was so fierce that it destroyed the radome there. Luckily, Mr Fung and his colleagues were not hurt, but the typhoon claimed the lives of 10 people and 12 others disappeared.

'My colleagues were working at the Tai Mo Shan station in 1999 when typhoon York hit. It was a typhoon signal No10 and it destroyed the electrical system so they could not contact anyone. The fire services had to rescue them,' Mr Fung said.

In the past 10 years, 71 typhoons rated at signal No3 or above have hit Hong Kong.

Mr Fung joined the then Royal Hong Kong Observatory in 1980. He has been working as a radar specialist mechanic for the past 15 years and is one of 22 in Hong Kong. He not only deals with radar equipment, but inspects and maintains the operations of weather radar stations on outlying islands, including some in mainland waters.

'I once went to Waglan Island with a colleague to monitor wave activity in the sea. We could only get there by helicopter, but the helicopter could not take us back because the island was shrouded in mist. Hong Kong was still a British colony at that time so we were rescued by a Royal Navy cruiser,' Mr Fung said.

Before the handover in 1997, helicopters from Hong Kong could not fly into Chinese airspace. Radar specialist mechanics had to take mainland planes to go to some hard to reach islands off the mainland.

'My colleagues once took a mainland plane to go to a Chinese-run radar station. After they got off, the airplane crashed into the mountain. The mainland officials from Guangdong province who were in the plane all died,' Mr Fung said.

Radar specialist mechanics are instrumental in ensuring that the public is safe from radioactivity. The Hong Kong Observatory has been carrying out environmental radiation monitoring since 1987.

Radar specialist mechanics are required to confirm that there is no dramatic increase in radiation levels by regularly inspecting the Daya Bay nuclear plant in eastern Shenzhen. They need to monitor radioactivity in the air, water and food to ensure levels are not excessive.

However, Mr Fung never worries about possible contact with radioactive materials. 'If there is a radiation leak from the nuclear plant when we are working there we will be safe because we wear highly protective clothing. We regard safety measures as our top concern,' he said.

Mr Fung never gets bored with his job, even when attending to mundane office duties. He looks forward to being outdoors and working with advanced electronic equipment.

'I am used to it. When I was young, I got excited about changes in the weather, such as the first frost in Tai Mo Shan,' he said.

About 20,000 people have died during typhoons in Hong Kong in the past 100 years, and Mr Fung said he was fortunate to have a supportive family who understood the importance of his job.

'When I have duties or when I need to stay overnight at the weather radar station at Tai Mo Shan, I tell my family well in advance. Therefore, they understand my job very well and they support me,' Mr Fung said.

As well as enjoying the thrill of battling the elements, Mr Fung gets a lot of job satisfaction from helping to create new equipment for the Observatory.

'For example, we were involved in the building of the automatic weather station. The core parts of its operation, such as the circuits and the microprocessors, were invented by us,' Mr Fung said.

Because of the closer co-operation between Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta, Hong Kong Observatory is working closely with the mainland and, in particular, the Macau Observatory.

The three parties are building more automatic weather stations and setting up a lightning location information system. The system is designed to detect and monitor the position of lightning to provide a useful tool for the public, companies or places such as swimming pools and construction sites.

There are five stations - three in Hong Kong, one in Macau and one on the mainland.

Anyone interested in being a radar specialist mechanic must be committed to the cause.

'A radar specialist mechanic does not necessarily need to have a university degree. The minimum education requirement is a higher certificate in electronic engineering. Candidates should also have eight years of practical experience [with radar equipment],' Mr Fung said.

According to the government pay scale, the salary for a radar specialist mechanic ranges from HK$28,075 to HK$46,810 a month.



Food, water, tools (especially pliers), life jacket, insect repellent, warm clothing

Personal qualities

Physically fit for outdoor activities, teamwork spirit, excellent communication skills, engineering experience