Emergency call

Telecom plays a pivotal role in crisis management and emergencies
Telecom services are vital to emergency reponse and crisis management. (Getty Images)
Telecom services are vital to emergency reponse and crisis management. (Getty Images)

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Telecom plays a pivotal role in crisis management with national emergency centres, operators, satellite providers and NGOs all working together to carry out remedial measures at times of disaster.

Any crisis situation calls for telecoms to be the prime saviour. However, it is apparent that the first victim in any emergency is networks; either they are down due to disaster, or overloaded with traffic if they are still up and running.

As a director and chief information officer of IT and management services divisions at the UN World Food Programme (WFP), Ernesto Baca has a strong understanding of the ways to get communication networks up and running following a disaster.

“Mostly we need to rely on our own resources deploying private networks in order to support the humanitarian mission during a catastrophe. And when we see that resources are available from a local operator, then we switch to their network.”

However, Baca states that satellite services are the most reliable source for WFP where they link their backend services either directly with the UN HQ or via NGO networks. With its deployments in 80 countries globally, Baca says that more than 80% of WFP’s operations are in MEA and Asia.

As Ebrahim K. Ebrahim, vice president of corporate and marketing communications at satellite operator Thuraya puts it: “Space based assets are not normally affected during natural disasters, and satellite-based services allow multiple applications to be deployed immediately, such as those required by first response, search and rescue teams, medical organisations, security and police forces, and broadcast media companies, to name a few.”

He says that one of the most important roles played by satellite networks is supporting logistics services using location and navigation applications. “In addition, satellite communications facilitate the restoration of mobile communication for terrestrial networks by providing location based GSM sites and backhauling traffic via satellites,” he says. Thuraya’s satcom solutions were used for search and rescue operations in the recent tsunami in Japan.

“Thuraya terminals were used extensively in the MEA region either through the ITU, UN or directly by Thuraya during emergencies in Iran, Uganda, Angola, and Mozambique, to name a few,” he says.

Technology adoption

Newly adopted technologies are being used to aid during disaster and recovery. Baca says: “Usually, there is a logistics or refugee camp, and we illuminate that camp with WiMAX or Wi-Fi services to allow access to a smart phone with Wi-Fi. It is in our mandate today that we deploy these voice and data services in order to manage emergencies.” He also says that by installing private networks and connecting them to GSM, emergency response teams can provide coverage to smart phones and other devices via Wi-Fi. “While a private network involves putting together radio room services (VHF and HF radios) and an internet connection that are instrumental during operations such as distributing food and offering logistics services, typically, it is the V-SAT deployment which is used in conjunction with VHF and VF equipment in order to set up the radio room, and provide the team with radios to operate, and vehicles installed with these radio receivers.”

“There is now fibre optics going around Africa, and recently, with the submarine cables being laid out in the east coast, we realised that 80% of the major places where we operate have fibre optics provided by local operators,” he says.

“Our commitment is to replace as many V-SATs as possible in order to go through these fibre communications. This holds good for long-term operations such as the case in Sudan where we have a big operation running for years,” says Baca. He also refers to a project called EPIC, which stands for ‘Emergency Preparedness Integration Centre’, as an important aspect of disaster response. “The project is about bringing IT and telecoms deep into the field, a platform that will allow the humanitarian worker to go all the way to the frontline and do different things needed such as biometric identification of beneficiaries, and deploying maps for logistics.” He says that the WFP’s R&D centre in Dubai deals with different vendors in these areas, integrating all the technologies to create a platform to provide IT solutions in ‘deep field’ space.

Regulatory aspects

As telecom regulations differ from one country to another, allowing private telecom networks to operate during a crisis situation also varies. Baca says: “We always rely on the government agencies and the regulatory authorities to control and manage an entire emergency. There are countries that are more permissive and some others very restrictive in terms of what IT and telecom equipment we can deploy. In fact, in some countries, we can’t deploy any private network services. This is not only in terms of gaining permission to import equipment, but we also face issues in areas such as using their frequencies.”

WFP is working closely with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to get a better idea of how it can prepare itself in places where it is tough to deploy networks and carry out the aid work.

On the operational front, Baca says that WFP faces a myriad of challenges, from visas to permission to import equipment, and to ensure that WFP deals with the regulatory authorities to get the right spectrum to establish telecommunications.

Operational synergy

During a catastrophe, individual and governmental organisations team up with local and satellite operators to carry out disaster relief measures. “Normally, agencies from the local governments are involved in crisis management,” says Baca, citing Haiti as an example, “In the case of Haiti, we initially interacted with the local operators, then we started to provide ISP services on our own until the local operator was able to sustain capacity and quality of services needed.

“We are not interfering with the local market here. When we have a sustained service within a given country, we have a local operator who gives fibre optics to our operations, and hence, we are buying from them,” he adds.

Ebrahim adds that Thuraya connects its satellite networks to national emergency centres and field activities in the disaster struck areas during relief activities, location identification and operational planning. “The coordination between emergency centres involves the exchange of disaster assessment information via these satellite broadband services such as Thuraya’s IP data solution. “For communication between field and national emergency centres, voice solutions are also used such as Thuraya’s rugged handhelds to provide GPS way point navigation which is essential for location services during relief operations,” he adds.

Africa update

Ongoing crisis and unrest have increased the need for humanitarian efforts in Africa. Baca says that WFP has resources on the ground in areas prone to emergencies with assistance from Dubai-based group, Fast IT and Telecoms Emergency and Support Team (FITTEST).

He says that in North Africa, there are many cases of large groups of people displaced from their homes, with no access to food or shelter. “In this case, we have to go there with our logistics arm and distribute food for the beneficiaries, and before landing there you need to deploy all telecom services that provide not only security for people to track them on ground, but also to give operational tools in order to keep the supply chain active, because they need access to their systems and databases located far away. We have a mandate to be at a place, up and running, in no more than 48 hours,” Baca says.

“WFP is always ready to manage three major concurrent emergencies. There are issues happening in Libya which has a spiraling effect on the borders of Tunisia and Egypt. There are ongoing crises in Cote d’lovire and Chad,” says Baca. In Africa alone, he says that WFP has its hands full supporting emergencies.

Baca says: “Libya is very high in our priorities right now. With no less than 400,000 people moving across the borders, both in Egypt and Tunisia, we are already supporting not only WFP operations, but also the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that is active in Libya.” He said that WFP already has a proposition to place food, IT, and telecom equipment in the borders of Libya. “Once permission is granted, we’ll place them in the borders,” he adds.

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