Communications capacity and tools are the lifeline of any major emergency response effort such as the fight to combat the ongoing Ebola crisis in West Africa.  And quality information, made accessible to key decision makers, is paramount in enabling responders to make timely, informed decisions that save lives and ease human suffering.

When a large emergency strikes anywhere in the world, emergency responders spring into action with essential services like health care, food, water, shelter, psychosocial support and much more.  But what is it that enables the effective and efficient distribution of these services?  Its emergency telecommunications.  For those of us in the Western world we might ask two questions that illustrate the importance of communications capacity:

How would you reach the health and safety resources in your community if you did not have a telephone or some other communication device?

How would your health and safety agencies respond to a large scale emergency without an entire suite of communications and collaboration tools to coordinate their response?

At NetHope, we have been working with the international development community since the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia to provide essential communications capabilities to response organizations.  We don’t do this alone and certainly can’t take credit for all the good work that has been done. We are a proud member of the UN’s Emergency Telecommunication Cluster and get invaluable technical, financial, and product support from technology companies all over the world. And the response organizations themselves are the real heroes as they carry out incredibly challenging rescue and relief work on the frontlines.

While every emergency is different, we have learned from the patterns and common challenges. The tools we use – and how they’re utilized – are remarkably similar from one emergency to the next.   The core scenarios – and tools to meet those needs – include:

  • Secure Communications (Two Way Radios) – Emergency responders are often deployed to insecure environments that have no reliable means for communications.  Two way radios, with communication channels that are dedicated to communications between field responders and home base operations, are the primary means for staying in contact and operating safely. 
  • Synchronous Phone Conversations (Telephones mobile and fixed line) – Mobile phone penetration and expanded mobile network coverage makes mobile phones an ever increasingly popular tool of choice for one to one voice communications.   When it comes to simple voice communications between two individuals, most emergency responders will turn to mobile phones (assuming the local networks are operational).  If local networks are not in working order, emergency responders will often use satellite phones for their one to one voice communications needs.
  • Field Assessments, Information Sharing, Data Driven Decision Support, Logistics and myriad other data solutions (Computers, Laptops, Smart Phones and More) – The emergence of the internet and various technical approaches to connecting one user to many others has created many opportunities for much more efficient and timely response.  Whenever possible, response organizations utilize internet connections enabled by local providers as they are the most readily available and the most cost effective.  When local mobile network operators or internet service providers cannot offer internet access a host of other satellite solutions such as satellite broadband terminals (e.g. BGANs and IP+) as well as larger satellite ground stations (e.g. VSATs) are brought in. 
  • Mass Messaging to the General Public (Telephones) – The proliferation of mobile phones has meant that important messages can be sent to the general public.  These messages can alert the communities about status of response efforts, warning signs for disease outbreak, and directions to local services.  These are powerful tools as “word travels fast” so even communities that have low mobile penetration rates and, in some cases low literacy rates, can be helped.

Those foundational technology and communications needs are largely consistent, while the specific use and application of those tools varies based on the scope, scale and nature of the emergency. Likewise, the local context – the existing infrastructure and resources of the impacted communities and populations – impacts the use and efficacy of these different tools.

When emergencies strike developing countries, the decisions on which tools to use are influenced by two factors – local providers may not have services that reach the affected areas and in areas where they can provide local services, they may not stand up to the usage requirements by the surge of emergency responders entering the region. Those cases are hardly one size fits all and effective strategies must be based on thoughtful collaboration with governments and other local stakeholders.

For NetHope and virtually every response organization we work with, the approach is grounded in three core principles:

1) Utilize the services provided by local mobile network operators and internet service providers whenever possible.

2) Where local services cannot be provided in the short term, look to satellite based solutions to address the crisis at hand in the interim

3) Work with local providers and governments to “build back better” after the initial crisis has been addressed. 

The role of telecommunications in every emergency setting is fundamental. With a thoughtful, strategic and collaborative approach it can be an ever more effective enabler of timely, lifesaving response and sustainable, lasting recovery.

Published December 3rd 2014 at Nethope

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