Agency Revolutionizes Disaster-Zone Logistics Using Modified Communications Apps
In 2012, the Government of Luxembourg created a unique public asset for international aid agencies: a satellite-based telecommunication platform, emergency.lu, that can be set up in any disaster zone within 24 hours. The hub provides a whole range of services such as high-quality internet connectivity, voice over IP, tracking and tracing applications, mapping services, in addition to low-bandwidth versions of two Microsoft tools—Skype and Lync—which aid workers can download onsite. The service has transformed disaster-response communications, helping aid agencies from around the world begin rescue and relief operations the moment they arrive onsite.
When natural disasters occur, poor communications infrastructure is one of the biggest challenges facing emergency relief agencies. Aid organizations can dispatch field teams within hours, but without reliable mobile and Internet services, aid workers struggle to share situation reports and ensure that food, medicines, surgical teams, and search teams get where they are needed most. If local networks are down, precious hours are lost, and search missions are negatively affected.
In January 2010, the frustration of finding themselves helpless at a scene of disaster proved a turning point for a number of aid organizations, including an agency run by the Government of Luxembourg. The government had dispatched its civil defense dog-handling teams to Port-au-Prince after the Haiti earthquake to help search collapsed buildings for survivors. The teams arrived within 24 hours but the absence of on-the-spot communications meant the dog teams could not be effectively tasked.
Recognizing that poor communications was a recurring challenge for the global aid community, the Government of Luxembourg decided to create a dedicated, disaster-relief communications unit. The idea was to bring together all the elements of a portable telecommunications hub so that even if all communications infrastructure were destroyed at the site of a disaster, first responders could still make phone calls and connect to the Internet. The equipment would be packaged in such a way that it could be deployed anywhere in the world within 24 hours. The Government of Luxembourg called the concept emegency.lu.
To create the communications hub, emergency.lu brought together satellite equipment, modified software, and services from multiple suppliers. The first challenge was how to provide aid workers with telephony and Internet connectivity in what would inevitably be a low-bandwidth environment. Fortunately, part of this solution was at already at hand. In 2008, engineers from Skype created a version of the Internet telephony client that was specifically optimized for low-bandwidth environments. Now, emergency.lu integrated that Skype client into a service portal that aid workers could access as soon as their Wi-Fi network was operational.
The emergency.lu team also wanted aid workers to be able to alert colleagues when they were online, and receive calls via their desk number. Software engineers were able to modify the Lync client in the unified communications platform, Microsoft Lync 2010, to improve its performance in low-bandwidth environments. They hosted the modified client on the portal as well, and loaded Microsoft Lync Server 2010 onto one of the portable servers, so that it could replicate the switching function of a local private-branch exchange (PBX).
Next, the emergency.lu team addressed the challenge of creating portable connectivity with two types of satellite communications kits. The first—called a Rapid Deployment Kit (RDK)—is designed to enable emergency.eu to get their Wi-Fi area up and running as fast as possible. It consists of an inflatable 2.4-meter satellite dish, servers, and a power generation unit, all of which are packed into seven cases, weighing 28 kilograms or less, for transport on civilian airlines. The RDK can be physically carried by team responders to a disaster site, set up in 40 minutes and provide simultaneous connectivity for 50 aid workers.
The second communications pack—called the Regular Deployment Kit—is designed as a follow-on, service-expansion capability. The half-ton antenna can support up to 250 simultaneous connections, and configured so that it can be cargo-lifted to any site and set up within seven days.
To guarantee the 24-hour deployment target, emergency.lu prebooked satellite time with the Luxembourg-based satellite owner and operator SES S.A, prepositioned kits with diplomatic clearance at airports in Luxembourg and Dubai, and placed a Learjet aircraft on two-hour standby. Civil defense volunteers who signed up to assist emergency.lu agreed to be on call for overseas work at two-hours’ notice.
By customizing existing applications and building them into a one-of-a-kind communications hub, emergency.lu has created a highly effective solution to an acknowledged global problem.
Ultra-Fast Deployment to a Disaster Area
On November 10, the emergency.lu solution was put to the test. Typhoon Yolanda, one of the strongest storms ever recorded by meteorologists, had smashed into Leyte province in the Philippines. The northern eye of the storm passed directly over the eastern city of Tacloban, population 215,000. Almost every building was damaged or destroyed.
Within two hours of receiving a formal government request for help, emergency.lu IT Manager and Civil Protection Volunteer Serge Wagener and three colleagues were heading toward Philippines. “Our team of four arrived at Tacloban airport the following morning,” says Wagener. “We went straight to the highest building still standing—the town hall—and set up on the roof using our own power generators. Forty minutes later our network was working.”
Fast, Efficient Disaster Relief
emergency.lu, as part of the ETC (Emergency Telecommunications Cluster), became the communications provider for all aid agencies as they arrived in Tacloban. In total, the Luxembourg team provided connectivity to 342 different groups and 5,000 aid and relief workers across Leyte.
According to Wagener, the benefits were immediate. The ability to quickly download the communications apps and then start work with familiar tools meant that all relief workers worked rapidly from the moment they arrived.
“Food distribution was far better organized than was possible before,” he says. “All agencies placed a liaison officer with us, who assessed reports as they came in, prioritized action, and coordinated their response. When food arrived at the airport, it went straight to where it was needed. Field hospitals from Belgium, France, and Germany started operating immediately.”
An Invaluable, Global Public Asset
By working with Microsoft to adapt existing applications, emergency.lu has created a unique communications asset for the entire international community.
“I have seen disasters where communications are absent, and what we did had the most amazing practical results,” says Wagener. “We’ve had so many letters from agencies thanking us for what we did. The UN has told us our service is invaluable. Our small project has created something which is now a vital component of international disaster relief.”