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’
“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.
Communication efforts were also No. 1 priority on a specially designed, all-in-one vehicle that was built to be transported quickly, anywhere in the world. An NACS mobile communication truck was sent down to Haiti on behalf of the Office of Special Envoy not only to help the Haitian government get back up and running, but to train new people to be ready for response and recoveries, as the DPC agency (Haiti’s equivalent of FEMA) lost a number of its employees in the devastation.
Brian Dekle, CEO and president of NACS, says James Lee Witt & Associates purchased the vehicle and offered it for use in Haiti through the Clinton Foundation. “In terms of emergency capability and emergency communications [in Haiti], there’s none,” says Dekle. “The UN is using some HF (high frequency), which we put on the truck for them, and we have VHF (very high frequency) to deal with the military at the port.” Dekle says they’ve also got FAA capability on board, and a ham radio to talk with organizations around the island. Still, he says, it’s extremely primitive. “For example, fire trucks. They’ve got some at the airport, but they don’t have fire stations around the country at all. None of that exists. [These are] things we take for granted; they have none of that capability.”
The NACS truck is also equipped with training materials, and an abundance of telephone lines and VoIP lines through a stand-alone satellite system. A server computer offers full GIS mapping. The truck currently stands post at the UN compound in Port-au-Prince. It provides James Lee Witt & Associates, the UN and the Haitian government with large amounts of bandwidth and telephone lines. It feeds high-speed Internet and phone lines, and video teleconferencing to sections of the UN compound.
While Dekle’s company built the vehicle, he himself was a volunteer in Haiti, and continues to travel back and forth from the states. When his mobile command vehicle got delayed a few days, he assisted non-governmental organizations in distributing food and supplies, and flew alongside pilots on aircraft missions to outlying areas of the country. Says Dekle of his experience, “It was so sad; I didn’t even take pictures at street level because there really wasn’t anything I wanted to remember.”
Telephone lines and a government-controlled Wi-Fi network were the country’s only way of communication before the quake. These methods are now utilized between aid agencies.
According to Dekle, James Lee Witt & Associates plans to construct an island-wide communications infrastructure, a robust system for emergency communications. And the company is looking to do it as quickly as possible, hopefully before the upcoming hurricane season.
Forging strong connections
A number of organizations continue their tireless quest to right Haiti’s fractured 114 service and provide radios and supplies to the people who are best equipped to administer aid. One of the biggest challenges in this task is the international collaboration that must take place among several entities. But that’s a good challenge. Though he admitted coordination was frustrating at times, Munjal says such cooperation made the support he helped provide a lot more meaningful. His team helped organizations like Save the Children, Doctors without Borders, NetHope and Internews Network. By integrating some of its equipment with NetHope’s solution, Harris was able to expand their capabilities to include other orgs that wouldn’t have been able to access Internet, particularly Internews, a group which did radio broadcasts inside the displaced person camps.
Mirgon notes Haiti has come from absolutely no communication to a point where it now has basic fire and EMS communications, and very basic 114. But it’s going to be some time before it improves on that. At least it’s a step towards stabilization.
Sometimes we forget how powerful nature can be. Currently more than 1.2 million people are living in spontaneous settlements in Haiti. Restoration is ongoing. Though the damage was clearly large-scale, it affected people on all levels. It continues to affect communities, families and people. Munjal will not forget working with one man in particular: Edward, a Haitian hired by the CHF to help with translation, had lost his wife and his family in the earthquake. He joined up with CHF to work, and to take his mind off his loss.
“Edward was a fairly well-educated man and knew about computers, and we wanted to teach him all the ins and outs of our equipment so he could be our local go-to guy,” recalls Munjal. “He was a teacher, and he was going to be staying there throughout so we thought we’d train him as well as possible.
“Even though there were so many good things [about Haiti] -- I worked with the hospital, I worked with Edward... and those kinds of things make you feel good -- at the same time you ask, ‘What’s it going to take for this place to recover?’ It’s almost intimidating.
“You get the feeling the people in Haiti are survivors. And I think they will make it, but recovery will be slow. It will definitely leave a deep scar.”