“When we arrived at Port-au-Prince International Airport, it was chaos,” recalls Munjal. The team was immediately tasked with providing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with some of its first communication devices, providing a more robust solution or merely increasing capacity. Says Munjal, “We provided them with a VSAT terminal, and we connected that through a switch and gave them a bunch of Voice over IP (VoIP) phones.” He notes all the equipment was rapidly deployed, meaning the service, whomever it was meant to support, would be available within the same day. Amid the chaos — or perhaps, because of it — the group established phone and Internet connectivity within its first day on the ground for FAA personnel.
The confusion and stress continued as Munjal made his way from the airport to St. Francis DeSales, a makeshift hospital built next to the collapsed remains of the old hospital. A number of people required immediate medical attention, he remembers, and although the airport was teeming with medical supplies, the improvised hospital in the field had no way of communicating back to the airport that it needed the supplies, much less what supplies it needed. Within a few hours of arriving at the hospital, Munjal witnessed an individual pass away from lack of insulin.
“If these people couldn’t communicate, if they couldn’t phone or e-mail or tell people what type of supplies they needed, without that communication all those other services were meaningless,” Munjal says.
St. Francis DeSales had satellite connectivity within a few hours, and phone and Internet were up in 8 hours. A large group of local Haitians working with the organization CHF (Cooperative Housing Foundation) International, the group which sponsored Munjal and his colleagues, helped in putting the dish together.
Harris also sent down a number of laptops for doctors and whoever else had a need. When Munjal left one computer for a second to perform an update on another, a doctor was already sending an e-mail requesting more medicine when he returned. As soon as a new service became available, it was used. “These guys just need this communication so bad,” says Munjal. “Once people sniffed there was a wireless network in the air, we had to password protect it, because it just would have gotten so clogged that nobody would have been able to make use of it.”
Communication technologies helpers like Munjal had to be extremely multifaceted, an expert of all things, in order to help whomever they could and fill in gaps as quickly as possible. In addition to providing VSAT solutions, Munjal parsed out two-way radios to emergency aid workers and organizations. He quickly found that two-ways were among the highest priorities to many.
The team set up a two-antenna, trunked, 800 MHz, rapid-deployment LMR system. At first they were hesitant to move the equipment on top of a hill, given that strict curfews in place for everyone’s protection. Eventually they found a relatively good spot near the CHF headquarters and had the equipment set up in a day. Now about 75 percent of the Port-au-Prince area had coverage. In addition, they could display the range of coverage, overlay it onto a Google map and provide radios to the CHF team. As part of CHF’s cash-for-work program, the organization gave radios to Haitian groups who then visited various rubble sites and could successfully talk back to the headquarters or to each other.
“The push-to-talk environment, as police know, is certainly the way to go when you’re coordinating large groups of people,” says Munjal. “When you’re doing cell calls, even if the cell system is working, it can feel so inefficient.” Sometimes, he says, even he’s surprised.
“When you compare two-way radio technology with some of the newer technologies like VSAT or situation awareness technology, you think LMR is older and maybe would be less significant. Yet when you face this type of situation, a working LMR system seems to be one of the most important pieces of the puzzle.”
LMR lets users eavesdrop into conversations that don’t require them to be engaged. For a doctor under pressure, or even the CHF organization that was coordinating the rubble teams, answering phone call after phone call is a hassle compared with turning the volume knob up on a radio. To hear what’s going on without having something demanded of you is simply more efficient.