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Are your comms ready for a disaster?

By Gregg Swanson
October 2, 2009

The report from Padang, Indonesia on October 1 was grim – a second earthquake had shaken
the region, power was out, and communications were degraded or nonexistent. From a press report: “the loss of telephone service deepened the worries of those outside the stricken area.”

This could occur almost anywhere. A major earthquake, tsunami, flood or storm could strike with no warning, and response teams will
have to cope. Too often we hear from
emergency responders and relief managers
that they will depend upon cell phones whe
they reach the disaster zone. But they may not work.

And too frequently the relief teams have some unpleasant surprises when they get ready to deploy. Sim cards that can’t be found, personnel not sure how to use the equipment, not enough batteries.

The simulation exercises led by ADRA Asia with participation by Caritas and World Vision and others underscored to these professional teams what they had to do to be truly prepared. For communications (“comms”) preparedness, regularly scheduled “checks” of equipment, service, personnel, and training are a must.

This checklist is designed to help relief/response managers ensure that their teams’ communications are ready for any emergency. It applies to satellite phones, BGANs, radio equipment, and any communications capabilities.

1. Personnel readiness
Is there a designated person who can access the communications equipment? Are there backup people who can also access the equipment, if the primary person is away? How would management contact these people in an emergency? Can they be contacted if power or cell phones are out (for example if there is extensive flooding or wind damage)?

2. Personnel training
Are the designated personnel fully trained in the use of the equipment? How current is the training? If the trained personnel are not available, are there trained backup personnel?

3. Procedures
Does your emergency response plan state the location of the equipment and how to access it (keys, combination locks, etc.)? Are there written procedures for the use of the equipment? Note: for the BGAN, there are several critical steps that every user must know to operate the device and to prevent excessive usage and cost, for example turning off auto-updates for Windows and anti-virus, managing wireless access when available, and limiting use to mission-essential Web sites.

4. Security of equipment
Is the equipment locked up? If so, who has the key or combination? In the worst case (e.g. local earthquake, flood, or civil unrest) is there a possibility that the equipment could not be accessed?

5. Periodic equipment and procedure checks
Have you recently run an inventory of the equipment, to include AC and DC chargers, extra batteries, antennas, manuals, software (CDs), and backpacks or carrying cases? Are the batteries charged? Will teams need a Pelican or waterproof carrying case? Do you require regular comms checks to ensure that the equipment works and personnel know how to use it? Do you document these checks?

6. Sim cards and service provider
Are there sim cards with the equipment? Is there a list of the sim card numbers? Do personnel know how to activate the sim cards if needed? Do they have the contact information for the service provider? Do they know what is needed to activate the sim cards, e.g. special forms, credit card number? Is there an account already set up with the service provider?

7. Technical support
Do personnel know how to get assistance with setup or technical support if they have problems? Do they have the requisite phone numbers and email addresses? (This information should be kept on laminated/protected paper with the equipment.) Do they know if the service provider can help at night or on weekends and holidays?

8. Software
Is there a CD with the latest version of required software? (For example, Launchpad and firmware upgrade software for BGANs.) Do personnel know how to get this software from the Inmarsat web site?

9. Status of new capabilities
Is someone in your organization responsible for monitoring developments in the comms industry (especially satellite communications) to watch for new capabilities, new procedures, or better pricing of service? Note: the HumaniNet Web site and eUpdate newsletters will help your teams to stay abreast of developments. HumaniNet also has an online Satcom Center with in-depth information.

I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Robert Patton of ADRA New Zealand in reviewing this article. Robert and his ADRA Asia colleagues have “set the standard” for readiness among Asian NGOs. We wish them and all the teams responding to the multiple emergencies in Asia safe and successful engagement in the many distressed communities in Sumatra, the Samoan Islands, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

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