Nº 10 2012 > ITU Telecom World 2012 | Special report

Emergency communications

Saving lives with ICT

Dr Hamadoun I. Touré, Secretary-General of ITU, presented the first ITU Humanitarian Award during ITU Telecom World 2012 to Industry Canada; Ministry Emergency communications
Dr Hamadoun I. Touré, Secretary-General of ITU, presented the first ITU Humanitarian Award during ITU Telecom World 2012 to Industry Canada; Ministry for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Australia; Inmarsat; Iridium Communications; and Thuraya in recognition of their commitment and consistent leadership in supporting the use of telecommunications to save lives during disasters. Navin Kapila, Consultant, was presented an individual award.
Pictured here after the Award ceremony are (from left to right): Samer Halawi, Chief Executive Officer, Thuraya; Donna Bethea Murphy, Vice President, Regulatory Engineering, Iridium Communications; Bruce Gracie, Special Advisor, International Organizations, Telecommunications Policy Branch, Industry Canada; Dr Touré; Brahima Sanou, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau; Andrew Sukawaty, Executive Chairman, Inmarsat; and Navin Kapila

Climate change and extreme weather events are resulting in more natural disasters, threatening lives and livelihoods. Governments, private-sector operators, and international organizations such as ITU are making sure that information and communication technologies (ICT) are used to their full in a crisis. Not all actions are costly or complex.

During a session on saving lives with ICT, it was noted that in 2011 alone, natural disasters such as the tsunami and earthquake that hit Japan or the floods in Thailand, cost the global economy more than USD 380 billion.

Representatives of satellite companies Inmarsat, Iridium, SATMEX and Thuraya gave examples of technical advances that could be helpful. These include technologies that focus on disaster detection, warning and prevention.

Humanitarian awards were presented by Dr Hamadoun I. Touré, Secretary-General of ITU, to Canada’s Ministry of Industry, Australia’s Ministry for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, the companies Inmarsat, Iridium and Thuraya, and a personal award to consultant Navin Kapila for his humanitarian efforts.

Ministerial round table

When disaster strikes we are all faced with the same urgent need to save our lives and those of others. With this reminder of our common humanity Brahima Sanou, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, opened a ministerial round table on emergency communications.

“When we talk about sustainable development, then climate change and its consequences for emergency telecommunications become important, if we care about ourselves and future generations,” Mr Sanou said.

Navin Kapila praised ITU for its work in emergency communications, calling for an intensification of efforts to provide timely assistance to citizens in times of need. He suggested establishing universal toolkits for international use in emergencies, and urging airlines to give out local emergency numbers upon landing — as standard practice. “To me, emergency communications means the right of every global citizen to ask for and receive timely assistance wherever he or she is”, he said, “We must have a passion for compassion to make that happen.”

Disaster can strike anyone, anywhere, warned Thailand’s Minister of Information and Communication Technology, Anudith Nakornthap. He gave as an example the two most recent disasters to have affected Thailand: the severe floods of 2011; and the catastrophic tsunami of 2004, when thousands of lives were lost within hours. Recognizing the role of telecommunications and ICT in disaster management, relief and reduction, he championed international cooperation: “We need to continue to share knowledge and experience with each other, and we need more collaboration to make this world safer, so that time and resources are not spent in vain.”

Micronesia’s Francis Itimai, Secretary of the Department of Transportation, Communication, and Infrastructure, explained that the unique geography of his island nation made the population both more vulnerable to national disaster, and less able to communicate effectively to provide emergency warning or organize relief efforts. As a small island developing State, the challenges of an isolated archipelago of low-lying small islands, regularly struck by typhoons and ringed by the “Pacific rim of fire”, were considerable. Increased satellite coverage, dedicated emergency communications, accurate maps provided by geographical information systems, better basic communications, and improved human capacity — in particular technical knowhow — were all needed, he said.

Those are challenges with which Louis Napoleon Casambre, Undersecretary in the Department of Science and Technology of the Philippines, the third most disaster-prone nation on Earth, is also familiar. He pointed out that emergency communications are particularly important where many people do not have access to mobile telephony.

Minister of Information and Communication Technology for Mauritius, Tassarajen Pillay Chedumbrum, commented that “Systems of communication only have effect when they are connected to institutional, organizational and social structures that set authorities and people in action — such as timely early warning systems.”

Sharing experiences

In an earlier session that kicked off the discussions on emergency communications on 14 October, participants looked at ways of leveraging ICT to prevent, mitigate and cope with natural disasters.

To withstand a natural disaster, “You need to be committed to communication services, particularly wireless services,” said Julian Robinson, Jamaica’s Minister of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining. Service providers have to be legally obliged to provide communications in a disaster situation, and their services have to be interconnected and work with each other.

Elizabeth Powell, Permanent Secretary of Fiji’s Ministry of Communications, stressed the importance of small island States working together, given their vulnerability to natural disasters. “It is only by coming together with other small island States and international bodies like ITU that we can create economies of scale to tackle the problems we face,’’ she said.

Mr Itimai said “Our lack of satellite coverage dedicated to emergency and disaster communications, as well as a lack of accurate maps, inhibit our disaster response.” He welcomed ITU plans to establish compatibility for early warning information in disaster monitoring and for dissemination of information.

T. Sanford Jewett, representing Thuraya, said that logistics played an important part. “The lesson learned from so many disasters is the importance of prepositioning inventory. So, if something happens, we can move equipment immediately to the field where it is needed,” he said, adding that Thuraya was training teams to be ready to go wherever and whenever they were needed.

Effective use of communication technology also came into play in long-term emergencies such as drought. “Stakeholders need to come together to deal with emergency situations,” said Ethiopia’s Minister of Communication and Information Technology, Dr Debretsion Gebremichael. Ethiopia used satellite data to predict droughts, so as to be prepared ahead of time.

Moderating the discussion, Cosmas Zavazava, Chief of ITU’s Project Support and Knowledge Department, concluded that a communication strategy was needed to succeed in saving lives in emergencies.


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