When disaster strikes, among the first people in WFP to move are the telecommunications staff. In Haiti, they found landlines, cellphones and satellite communications all down. Yet within days they had connected humanitarian workers to each other and the world.
ROME/PORT-AU-PRINCE -- In the aftermath of the quake, WFP's staff in Haiti could only communicate via High Frequency radio. All other forms of communication were destroyed. At the same time there was a huge need for communication. Without information, vital decisions on how best to get help to disaster victims are almost impossible to make.
Within 24 hours of the earthquake, WFP had dispatched ICT experts to Haiti to establish communications for the humanitarian operation. "During the first hours of a crisis, information is scarce and scattered. Our priority is simply to prepare to depart, without really knowing what we will find," said Dane Novarlic, Head of WFP Fast IT and Telecommunications Emergency and Support Team (FITTEST).
Dane (photo left) and his crew brought with them laptops, satellite phones and VHF radios from WFP’s IT centre in Dubai. Once on the ground they set up a makeshift ‘office’ in a garden inside the compound of the MINUSTAH stabilization force in Port au Prince, and set to work.
"It’s 23:00, and everyone here is moving at top speed,” said Dane over the phone a few hours after arriving in Port Au Prince. “We have restored the mail server, and people can now use it. We are working very closely with the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Thanks to them we also have new phone lines in the ‘office’”.
“With the assistance of the 'blue helmets', we were able to establish steady voice and data services," says Swedish telecoms specialist Oscar Caleman, one of the WFP experts deployed to Haiti. "The team is now working to establish a VSAT wireless voice and data communication link that is independent from the established infrastructure and therefore not affected by the earthquake damage.”
A week after the quake, the FITTEST office in the compound garden is now a mini communications hub, allowing up to 100 humanitarian workers precious voice and data access within and outside the country.
As well as enabling operations to help disaster victims, communications are also important for the safety of aid workers. The WFP team has set up a 24/7 radio room set up to keep contact with them as they move across Haiti.
Meanwhile, more equipment is on the way. A self contained cellular network has been dispatched from Brindisi, Italy. Once up and running, it will be able to handle data and phone calls from some 5,000 devices. Another three metric tons of material, satellite equipment, phones, computers and radios, is being dispatched from Dubai.
“We have basic connectivity," says William Gonzalez, a WFP specialist in IT network design, "but there are the obvious problems of limited phone lines and limited bandwidth which is something we will need to address as the humanitarian community in Haiti increases in number."