Importance of tech response during disasters

BY ANA P. SANTOS AND MICHAELA ROMULO

STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIPS. WFP's Praveen Agrawal and Ericsson's Ellie Hanna, Rima Qureshi, and Brent Carbno discuss the importance of providing technical assistance during disasters.Photo by Sheila Rada

STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIPS. WFP's Praveen Agrawal and Ericsson's Ellie Hanna, Rima Qureshi, and Brent Carbno discuss the importance of providing technical assistance during disasters.Photo by Sheila Rada

GUIUAN, Eastern Samar – In Guiuan, where Yolanda first made landfall, there is no electricity, water is distributed everyday through water tanks, and many people are living in tent cities which serve as temporary shelters – but there is WiFi.

Though intermittent and sometimes slow during a weather disturbance, there is WiFi connectivity that allows the various humanitarian organizations on the ground to coordinate with one another, report back to their Manila headquarters, and send vital status updates that help in avoiding replication and duplication of efforts and maximize resources.

It is Michael Hanrahan’s job – a telecoms engineer and volunteer from the Ericsson Response Team – to make sure that the WiFi connection is working smoothly, to trouble shoot the usual technical problems, and set up new connections like the Internet connection in the field hospital set up in Guiuan by international medical organization, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Hanrahan is one of the 150 full-time Ericsson employees around the world who have volunteered to be on a rapid deployment list where they could be activated at any time to set up communications in emergency situations.

“We saw the warnings about the typhoon (coming to the Philippines) and we were on standby to come here. Within a day after the typhoon hit, we got the call for the need for telecom assistance and got ready to make our way to Tacloban,” said Hanrahan.

Tech response during disaster

When disaster strikes, the usual first response is to provide food, shelter, and financial aid. But when power and communication lines are destroyed and the connection to the outside world is lost – as was the case with Typhoon Yolanda – the need for technical response is vital.

Connectivity facilitates decision-making in a timely manner through the movement of data.

According to Praveen Agrawal, Country Director of The World Food Programme (WFP) Philippines, “The right decisions at the right time will save lives.”

The Ericsson Response Team is partnered with several organizations within the United Nations, most importantly the WFP who heads the Emergency Telecom Cluster (ETC). It is partnerships like this that allow for immediate response during disasters.

On November 9, the day after Yolanda hit the Visayas, Agrawal was on the first C130 flight to Taclobanto get response operations underway. Within the first 48 hours, a team was on the ground with emergency telecoms equipment, and the WiFi system was up and running during the first week.

“It is our job to provide telecom expertise – everything from fully functioning mobile connection to a localized WiFi network so all NGOs coming through can connect with one another,” said Hanrahan.

For Yolanda, Ericsson Emergency Response deployed a WiFi system called WIDER: Wireless LAN in Disaster and Emergency Response that provided Internet connectivity in Roxas City, Guiuan, and Tacloban for humanitarian workers in the area. The system provides wireless hotspots, telecommunications, and Internet connectivity between different relief agencies at disaster sites.

“Communication makes a huge difference out in the field. Ericsson provides our telecoms expertise to set up communications systems to serve and assist the relief community in their efforts,” said Hanrahan.

Currently, there are about 15 Ericsson volunteers working in Yolanda-affected areas to assist the communication needs of about 6,000 registered users.

Employee Initiative

Ericsson Response Team started out as an employee initiative in 2000. An employee expressed interested in doing humanitarian work and using technical knowledge to help those in need. It was a suggestion that was welcomed by Ericsson who turned it into a global program whose objective is to work with humanitarian organizations to fulfill a basic human need of communication, a need that becomes more pronounced in the advent of a disaster.

Volunteers are full-time Ericsson employees who have been trained by the UN, WFP, and other humanitarian agencies to understand the needs of the humanitarian community on the ground and how to best provide solutions. They are also oriented on the possible challenges during the mission.

“We could easily provide financial assistance. We could provide food, clothing, medication but we believe we can make much more of a difference by providing our technical expertise. So the way we do that is by working with established processes, established organizations such as the UN so they can do their job better,” said Rima Qureshi, Global Senior Vice President for Special Projects and Head of Ericsson Response Team.

Private and public partnership

The collaboration between Ericsson and WFP, which began in 2002, highlights the importance of strategic partnerships between private sector and public sector, and how bringing the right kind of knowledge and expertise can save lives.

Agrawal stressed the importance of forging such kind partnerships because it enables them to have immediate access to highly specialized technical people and state of the art equipment that the UN or its agencies may not necessarily have access to.

The emergency communications response provided by Ericsson has been on-going for two months now. A 4th team is scheduled to arrive and continue operations on the ground.

Ericsson will stay as long as the ETC cluster requires their services or until local telecom providers fully resume their operations.

This was re-posted from Rappler.

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