In Port-au-Prince’s crowded, sweltering airport, International Systems Engineer Sean Munjal arrived on January 30 with a team of eight others representing Harris Corp. Sean was one of two representatives from Harris Public Safety and Professional Communications. The group stayed at the airport two or three nights until it could successfully move out all the goods it had brought. Military and UN representatives swarmed the facility, and a steady stream of supplies flowed around the clock. There was no running water.
The 7+ magnitude earthquake that shook Haiti on January 12, 2010 lasted 35 seconds. On February 2, the Haitian government estimated the death toll at 230,000, with more than 1.2 million people living in spontaneous settlements. The quake was a sucker punch of grave proportions inside a country that already struggled with poverty and government corruption.
Haiti’s misfortune didn’t fail to rouse humanitarian efforts across the globe. Legions of international aid set to work digging thousands out of the rubble and assisting the severely injured and displaced. However, with the country’s entire communications system crippled, reestablishing emergency communication services quickly became a parallel goal to saving lives. Without fire trucks, hospitals, ambulatory services or even radios, despite the very best of intentions, rescue efforts would prove noticeably stunted.
Assessing the need
Restoring 114 (Haiti’s equivalent of 911) was, and continues to be, a crucial focus. Despite how effective or non-effective 114 was initially, it must be reestablished as the solitary routing number for communication and emergency assistance. Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International is one organization working with other groups and the Haitian government to reestablish this service in the country. Haiti’s entire police Land Mobile Radio (LMR), a three-site trunked system, was destroyed along with much of its wire line infrastructure in the quake. Going in, aid workers had devised a solution of three parts: how to execute immediate response, what to do in the interim, and setting long-range goals. But after considering the country’s ever-shifting conditions, the plan was quickly revised over a two-week period and workers focused specifically on immediate 114 restoration.
“It took some time for the Haitian government, through other resources they had [received] from other countries, to get to a point where they could actually respond to calls,” says Richard Mirgon, President of APCO. Mirgon says Haiti was unlike anything he had seen in his 15 years of law enforcement and 18 years as a director of technology services. “Over the years, our members have dealt with Katrina and those types of things,” he says.“But Haiti was unique in that it was a third-world country with virtually total destruction, with no other resources within their country that they could draw on.”
To start, workers routed 114 calls to cell devices, as cellular carriers were still up and running off of generators and additional power supply sources. This provided a good foundation with which to receive calls. Next, according to Mirgon, they had to find a location, a structure that was still intact, from which they could dispatch help. The building had to have radio coverage to handle walkie-talkies, mobile radios and handheld radios. The third consideration was providing police, fire and EMS with the radios, external antennas and power supplies so they could dispatch workers to emergency calls for help.
It was ‘absolute chaos’