When communication fails during a disaster

20 Nov 2013

On November 8, the Philippines was hit by Typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan), one of the strongest typhoons to make landfall ever recorded in the world’s history. A vast expanse of the provinces on the Eastern part of the country has been devastated, some towns left in ruins and almost wiped out.

In the aftermath of the super typhoon which packed maximum sustained winds of 315 kph (by comparison, Hurrican Katrina’s was 280 kph) and brought a deadly storm surge, the affected areas lost telecommunication services vital to disaster response. This made everything much worse.

Despite having top national government officials pre-positioned in Tacloban City, one of the hardest hit, information on the extent of the damage and the amount of help needed came in trickles. In fact, assessment of the situation became more difficult twice over, especially since airports and ports were also wrecked.

People outside the typhoon’s path relied on intermittent TV newsfeeds by media people on the ground, who were themselves stranded and unable to use phone services.

For several days, survivors could not contact their government for help or get their message across to loved ones in other areas to inform them that they were alive and needed help.

The local governments in the province of Leyte struggled to function, because they themselves were victims. In Tacloban City, the number of police officers, fire fighters, and health workers was significantly diminished. It became almost impossible to mobilize personnel and resources from within.

In a country where mobile phones are ubiquitous and the need for texting has become part of the Filipino psyche, one could only imagine how to it was like for the government, the survivors, and relief operators to be cut off when communicating was needed the most.

In several provinces in Central Philippines, especially the Visayas, communication was either completely lost or poor. Smart Communications, Sun Cellular, and Globe Telecom’s 2G and 3G networks went down due to power outages and damaged cell sites. The whole region became practically isolated.

Two days after the typhoon, Globe managed to set up one temporary cell site and repaired 26 sites around Samar. Meanwhile, Smart deployed Thuraya mobile satellite equipment to government agencies and aid organizations to help facilitate and coordinate relief efforts. “Free call and cell phone charging” stations were also mobilized by local telcos in certain areas. As of Day 10, many affected areas have restored mobile phone networks.

Telecommunication is, indeed, a critical national infrastructure. And it took a super typhoon to show that investing, by both the private and public sector, in reliable and redundant communication networks is a matter of public interest and safety.

This calls for a rethinking of how telecom and internet services figure in disaster preparedness plans and strategies. It also highlights the need for government to seriously consider funding and maintaining different modes of communication, especially for emergencies and disasters.

There are lessons to be learned, and that need to be applied.
Invest in traditional communication. Even before the typhoon struck, Ham radio operators have reportedly been helping the government disseminate information on pre-emptive evacuations, as well as warnings of flash floods and landslides. During the days when phone services were down, amateur radio volunteers provided communication support to government and relief agencies. An emergency radio station also started broadcasting life-saving information in Tacloban City.

Adopt disaster-ready telecom services. The country ought to have a form of ready-to-use telecoms network or mobile suite that can easily be transported and assembled, similar to that of the Telecoms Sans Frontieres (TSF). This could be developed by the local engineers or required by government from local telcos as part of their franchise obligations or as a form of corporate social responsibility. Satellite phone technology must also be considered.

Take into consideration similar disasters and the effects of climate change in building (and rebuilding) telecom infrastructure. Local telcos must work with disaster experts and the government in order to ensure that communication networks can withstand the effects of disasters or can be restored immediately (ideally, on Day 1). Also, look for models from how other telcos around the world deal with disasters and emergencies.

Those who survived have lost so much, and they continue to suffer. But there has been an overwhelming outpouring of help from fellow Filipinos and the international community. Through this blog, I want to say thank you for helping typhoon Yolanda victims get back on their feet. I am hopeful that they will slowly pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives.

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