Groups Scramble to Restore Emergency Communications in Haiti
January 26, 2010
Photo courtesy ITU
Emergency communications, along with just about every aspect of life for Haitians, was severely damaged Jan. 12 by the 7.0 earthquake that devastated Haiti. While search and rescue, medical treatment, food, water and shelter were among the top priorities, the destruction of communications infrastructure impacted all efforts.
“Every aspect of life in Haiti has been terribly affected by the devastating earthquake, and the communications sector is no exception,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in a statement. “The immediate issues of concern are continuity of service by existing telecommunications companies, which are providing essential communications for Haitians and the disaster relief efforts, and their ongoing operational challenges such as access to fuel and security.”
The lack of communications jeopardized all aide efforts as workers struggled to find ways to communicate with each other, as well as other agencies. The quake shut down most radio communications and phone services. Before the quake, the impoverished nation had limited public-safety radio communications and only 108,000 fixed wirelines. The international community has been working to repair the systems, both for the immediate future as well as long term.
“Haiti’s need for communications services is extraordinary and urgent, and the FCC is strongly committed to doing our part,” said Genachowski. “It is vitally important that people on the ground in Haiti have the communications capacity to conduct rescue and recovery missions, connect with loved ones, care for the sick, provide first-hand information and move forward with overall recovery efforts.”
On Jan. 20, the FCC announced making contact with Montaigne Mercelin, the director general of Conatel, the FCC’s Haitian counterpart. The FCC blog also stated that there’s been progress with regard to communications. However, wireline service had yet to be restored in Port-au-Prince, and the two public-safety answering points (PSAPs) in the capital weren’t functioning, giving the city essentially no emergency number service. On Jan. 28, the FCC announced a U.S. team was on the ground in Haiti evaluating the status of the country's communications infrastructure and services in response to a request by Mercelin.
Most non-government organizations (NGOs) and relief workers are still relying on satellite services to communicate. Restoration of voice communications, including radio communications, Internet and power supplies, is ongoing, said Cosmas Zavazava, chief of division, emergency telecommunications, International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
ITU deployed broadband satellite terminals with GPS capability for use in search and rescue, coordinating logistics, telemedicine and establishing public calling offices. ITU is also providing support to assess telecommunications network disruption and damage with the aim of rehabilitating those networks, Zavazava said.
ITU is the United Nations specialized agency for information and communications technologies, with the primary goal of providing universal access before, during and after disasters, Zavazava said. “In the aftermath of the disaster, ITU will help Haiti plan and implement information and communication technologies (ICT) projects leading to the establishment of state-of-the-art communications networks.”
In addition, the Telecom sans Frontires (TSF) has teams on the ground and installed wireless telecommunications centers in high-speed cluster policy coordination. TSF’s teams were sent at the request of UNICEF and the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC). At the Toussaint Louverture International Airport, the on-site operation coordination center (OSOCC) has Internet connection and satellite broadband lines, provided by broadband global area network (BGAN) terminals, a TSF statement said.
The Haitian National Police had no access to the Internet until Jan. 25, when the agency’s staff was able to access the Internet using the facility with wireless BGAN, the TSF statement said.
So far much of the public-safety efforts, including the U.S. Marines and the government search-and-rescue crews, operated on their own communications networks. Ray Vaughan, a communications specialist for the urban search and rescue (US&R) Florida Task Force 1, said the force brought its own old two-way equipment, including repeaters and radios. In an Internet discussion forum, Vaughan said many of the NGOs and organizations coming to help don’t have the budget for their own communications systems and asked for donations.
Vaughan listed equipment he said would help, including repeaters that could be put on hill sites, small antennas that are easily installed with hose clamps, a fleet of portable radios, chargers and new batteries, and mobiles with mag mounts and cigarette adapters.
Zavazava echoed the call for more supplies and cited key obstacles in the recovery as damaged infrastructure including antenna masks and limited power supplies.
Several radio communications companies are helping with the relief efforts. Kenwood USA donated amateur radios to the ARRL, the national association for amateur radio, to assist in the relief efforts in repairing and replacing communications.
“Knowing first hand that communications will be one of the most critical needs to ensure the public safety and security of the citizens of Haiti at this time, we were eager [to] make sure we did what we could to support the efforts of the ARRL, which is always on the front lines supporting disaster recovery in the U.S. and internationally,” said Phil Parton, Kenwood national sales manager, amateur radio division.
Icom America donated over 150 communications equipment units from the Marine, Aviation and Amateur Divisions to be distributed through Mentone Communications Education Association. "While there are numerous channels for distribution, we received a personal commitment for distribution directly to agencies that could immediately utilize the equipment for relief efforts where existing equipment infrastructure was destroyed," said Icom President Hiroshi Nakaoka.
High Country Communications provided communications equipment to Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian-based relief organization. The organization said it’s not soliciting equipment but has been working with a number of companies that have offered communications equipment. “We have a technician at our compound in Haiti working to set up a very small aperture terminal (VSAT) system, and we are also sending several hundred radios in the coming days to improve communications with our staff and partners on the ground,” said Chris Johnston, Samaritan’s Purse programs liaison.
Inmarsat and SkyTerra announced a joint initiative to provide relief organizations with enhanced access to mobile voice and broadband data services. Inmarsat works with many NGOs, humanitarian groups and emergency responders operating in Haiti, including TSF, WorldVision and NetHope.
Ericsson is in the process of deploying a cellular services network via a portable GSM network and wireless LAN in disaster emergency response (WIDER). A response team is prepared to distribute over 1,400 mobile handsets to relief workers, the company said on its Web site.
“Our central purpose is to enable the UN to fulfill its mandate,” said Rima Qureshi, head of Ericsson Response. “Beyond food, water, fuel and medicine, communications is a basic need, and one we can provide support for. That’s the best contribution we can make given our technical expertise.”
Other companies, such as Fortius One and Emergency Services Interactive Systems (ESIS), announced that their technologies have aided in the efforts. Fortius One created a news dashboard with the latest volunteered and official source data and maps of the affected area. ESIS’ Coordinated NIMS Incident Planner (CNIP) was deployed by the Utah US&R Task Force 1 to aid in search-and-rescue missions.
“Haiti also can benefit from deployment of temporary communications in the country, including refugee sites. Many companies have made significant offers to help, and urgent efforts are under way to coordinate and deliver assistance,” Genachowski said.
In addition to equipment donations, monetary donations are appreciated as well. “During reconstruction and beyond, ICT are important for the socioeconomic development of a country such as Haiti. However, for these to be put in place, financial resources are needed. We urge your readers to seriously consider contributing to the ITU Appeal: www.itu.int/emergencytelecoms
,” Zavazava said.