In disaster situations, where huge relief operations have to be mobilized overnight, WFP’s crack IT unit, the FITTEST team pride themselves on being the first on the ground. Dane Novarlic, who recently arrived in flood-wracked Pakistan, explains what his team is up against and why their mission is so important.
What’s the situation in Pakistan? Are things as bad as you imagined?
The situation is critical, much worse than I had imagined. That poses a number of challenges for those of us in IT and telecommunications, because the operation is expanding very quickly. WFP was already present in most of the areas worst affected by the floods, but we’re having to move into new areas as well. That means installing extra satellite and radio equipment to make sure everyone on the ground can communicate.
What’s the first thing you do when you arrive in an emergency situation like the one in Pakistan?
The first thing you do in an emergency situation is gather as much info about conditions on the ground as possible so you can plan ahead efficiently. As soon as we arrived, we met with the local IT staff and got an idea of what the humanitarian effort needed from us.
What needs to be done next to ensure a successful operation?
WFP heads up the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) for the entire humanitarian community, which means a host of other UN Agencies and NGOs are depending on us. In a big emergency like this, the number of aid workers in-country shoots up, which means there are a lot of people coming in who need to be able to communicate with each other. We’re working to ensure that they have all the internet, radio and telephone services they need, so they can hit the ground running.
What kind of challenges are you facing in Pakistan right now?
Apart from the flood emergency, we are also in the process of moving the WFP offices to a secure location. WFP has been operating from a temporary base since the office was destroyed in a bomb attack last year. One of the biggest challenges is coping with the security risks in Pakistan, which continue to be high, particularly in some of the worst-affected areas.
In disaster situations, FITTEST teams are often first on the ground. Why is what they do so important in the first phases of an operation?
In an emergency operation, such as the flooding in Pakistan and the earthquake in Haiti, the ability to communicate is essential. If aid workers can’t exchange information, they can’t organise rescue missions, food distributions or medical care. Email to order relief supplies, for instance, and radio to contact field teams are both essential. That’s why we have to get there first.
Interview by Mariko Hall