The international response to the Haiti earthquake showed the value of advance preparation. E&T explains how fast-response teams set up vital communications services in the days after the disaster.
Getting emergency communications up and running in Haiti has played a critical role in not just coordinating but also enabling the relief effort following the devastating earthquake that struck the country last month.
From its base at the airport near the capital city of Port-au-Prince, the World Food Programme (WFP) is leading the efforts of the member agencies within the United Nations’ emergency telecoms cluster.
In the first few weeks after a disaster, the cluster has a two-fold role. First, it aims to provide voice and data networks for use by the UN, as well as the many NGOs and other official aid organisations involved. Second, it provides communications for local people who need to contact friends and family when mobile and fixed-line telephony services are unavailable.
A small team flies in to start work as soon as possible. Dane Novarlic, leader of the WFP’s telecoms team in Port-au-Prince, explained the process to E&T: “Right now, we and other agencies here have about 20 people dedicated to providing telecoms services and we’re adding people all the time.
“In the first stage, there were about 10. You arrive in the zone with a ‘flyaway’ kit, which has what you need for basic connectivity, radio systems and so on. Then you build on that. Right now, we are adding more data connectivity and Internet connections for agencies, and also we have got the secure networks used by MINUSTAH [the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti] back into operation.”
The basic strategy is to arrive in the disaster zone with a small, flexible team that can meet immediate needs quickly and then iteratively improve and extend the reach and quality of the networks as the relief effort itself builds up.
Such emergency services are always vital to organise the delivery of aid, but this is particularly true in so densely populated and heavily damaged a city as Port-au-Prince. Aid workers need to know where to go; equipment has to be available in the right place; and there are obvious personal security issues, particularly with aid deliveries seriously constrained by the airport’s limited capacity.
Some advances have also now been made in providing communications for the Haitian population. “The GSM network is operational again but is very, very congested, which is not surprising, and not all traffic is getting through. A lot is still being carried on VHF radio,” said Novarlic.
Télécoms Sans Frontières is an agency that works with the WFP with a specific goal of providing an emergency domestic communications infrastructure using satellite telephones. Individuals can use these to make two-minute calls to friends and families free of charge.
“After any disaster, people immediately think, ‘Who can I call?’ They want to tell their relatives they are safe, and their relatives want to know what is happening,” said TSF spokesman Paul Margie.
TSF was initially slowed down in its efforts by the effective collapse of Haiti’s already fragile infrastructure, although it did have some phones on the streets as this article went to press.
Both the WFP’s emergency team and TSF stressed the need to be well equipped before a disaster to perform their particular jobs.
“We’re in the business of dealing with the first 30 days after the event, so you need to have the equipment on hand already and, because you are working with very small, high-efficiency teams, you need people to have been thoroughly trained on that equipment already,” said TSF’s Margie.
Novarlic echoes this for the WFP. “We receive tremendous ongoing support from the hardware companies so that we are ready to go whenever we’re needed. And, as the work goes on, I must stress that you need to coordinate things very tightly through the WFP so that we get what we need where we need it. But that’s well understood - we can’t wait for disaster to happen and then try to get everything ready.”
UN initiatives like the telecoms cluster mean that there is also an existing understanding of roles and responsibilities across the different bodies involved.
“Each disaster is unique but there is something to learn from each one as well,” said Novarlic. “And one thing that is really important is that we do know one another - you recognise a lot of the people or you know their organisations. Those kinds of relationships are helping us to respond more quickly.”
To find out more about the work of the UN’s emergency telecoms cluster, its members and how to offer donations or services visit www.unfoundation.org/global-issues/technology/disaster-relief-comms.html