EMERGENCY  COMMUNICATIONS  AT  WORK

MANILA, February 28, 2006
 (STAR) By Grace Sarmiento-Clavecilla - When disaster struck the barangay of Guinsaugon in Saint Bernard, Leyte, Smart field engineers Jun Parrilla, Lolong Echavia and Lito Quirong, had just set out from their office base in Maasin, Southern Leyte, to do some troubleshooting at a cell site in nearby Hinunangan town. Due to the heavy rains in the past days, Parrilla was checking if landslides had rendered the roads impassable. But when he called the caretaker at the Smart cell site in Saint Bernard, he got the shocking news about the landslide in Guinsaugon.

The three engineers rushed to the stricken town and by evening they had set up a Smart Libreng Tawag center at the Saint Bernard municipal hall – using their own GSM cellphones as calling stations. The Libreng Tawag center allowed survivors to get in touch with their relatives and next of kin in other parts of the country and abroad, free of charge.

Via the same GSM infrastructure, local authorities coordinated with their counterparts in neighboring towns, as well as with other national government agencies.

In no time, word about the sorry state of Guinsaugon spread like wildfire and eventually reached those whose response and assistance were most critical in saving the several hundreds more trapped in the mountain of mud.

Just like what happened in Quezon over a year ago, the unfolding events in Guinsaugon proved to be another test case of how various communications technology could be deployed in an emergency situation. For wireless telcos like Smart Communications Inc., the experiences being derived from the tragedy is a measure of their ability to rapidly respond and set up an emergency communications network where and when necessary.

"Immediate response is very crucial because hundreds of people are still buried alive," Smart public affairs senior manager for the Visayas and Mindanao Maria Jane Paredes said.

"The sooner the rescue and retrieval operators reach the disaster site, the higher the chances that more lives can be saved," she added.

Coordination between the local authorities and the various agencies tasked with rescue and retrieval operations was done via mobile phones.

During the regular command conference and update briefing, Southern Leyte Gov. Rosette Lerias acknowledged the communications support that companies like Smart has been providing in the overall disaster relief and recovery operations.

The day after the disaster struck, rescuers from the Philippine and US Armed Forces, volunteers from the Philippine National Red Cross, local and foreign journalists, as well as social workers, rushed to the site. Their quick mobilization was again aided by the timely and accurate information relayed to them by local officials on-site connected via Smart’s GSM service.

Going broadband

For the first time since the massive mudslide, rescuers, mediamen and volunteers themselves were able to gauge the severity of the disaster. Their next move was clear – they needed to send reports, photos, and eyewitness stories to summon whatever assistance they could get.

Transmitting text and photos could not have been accomplished easily via regular GSM or even through the faster data transmission-enabling GPRS (General Packet Radio Service). The nearest Internet café available was in Sogod, an hour away from Saint Bernard and the rough road conditions made the travel time longer. As such, the solution was to upgrade the on-site infrastructure to accommodate the transmission of bandwidth-hungry data.

On Friday afternoon, Smart decided to deploy wireless broadband services in the area in anticipation of the data requirements of the journalists and rescuers who would be reporting and coordinating in the disaster site.

"Content and timeliness of delivery of information are essentials in such a situation – and wireless broadband is our solution. It’s good that we were able to deploy it rapidly," said Menchie Quiñal, Smart senior manager for service assurance in the Visayas and Mindanao.

Quiñal recounted that although Smart had the technology to provide wireless broadband in Saint Bernard with the Smart Wi-Fi service, the Canopy equipment that would enable this service still had to be shipped from Manila.

"While the Canopy equipment was on its way, we decided to activate the EDGE capability of the Saint Bernard cell site," she said.

EDGE or Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution technology provides up to three times the data capacity of GPRS. With EDGE, the existing base station in the area was able to handle three times more subscribers, triple the data rate transfer speeds per subscriber, and add extra capacity to the voice communications.

Like most of Smart’s cell sites, the one in Saint Bernard town was already pre-configured for EDGE so it was only a matter of "switching on" this capability.

"EDGE allows the delivery of advanced mobile services such as the downloading of video and sound clips, full multimedia messaging, and e-mail on the move. With EDGE in place, the journalists and rescuers there can transmit picture messages, and access e-mail through their mobile phones at faster speeds," Quiñal said.

The engineers also started activating PLDT’s WeRoam services using Smart’s GSM/GPRS/EDGE infrastructure to provide wireless Internet connection to those who would prefer to access the Web using laptop computers instead of mobile phones.

Using the two company-issued laptops and PC cards they had with them, the team set up a WeRoam station in the Libreng Tawag Center to help members of the Philippine and foreign news media send photos and file news reports via the Internet. US Marines also used the service to send photos and reports, and help disaster response agencies coordinate and exchange online reports with their teams.

"Most of the volunteers and journalists in Saint Bernard were actually surprised to learn that even in such a remote town, Smart can readily provide Internet connection," Edgardo Albay, Smart subscriber network connectivity senior supervisor said.

Albay was among the Smart personnel who immediately responded to the disaster.

The field engineers were finally able to activate the Smart Wi-Fi service when the Canopy equipment arrived on Sunday.

Smart Wi-Fi is a high-speed broadband Internet service covered by the nationwide cellular coverage of Smart. It offers wireless Internet connectivity of up to 128 kilobytes per second.

This broadband service is made possible by installing a Smart Wi-Fi antenna with a direct line-of-sight to a Smart cell site. Equipped with Canopy technology, the cell site is guaranteed to provide the strongest possible radio frequency transmission.

Members of the Special Malaysian Assistance and Rescue Team (with the acronym SMART), who were able to send photos and reports to their headquarters via Smart Wi-Fi, were among those who benefited from the free Internet access facilities at the Saint Bernard municipal hall.

"At the moment, four laptops are currently connected to broadband Internet in the relief and rescue site in Saint Bernard. Anyone with a laptop may go to the Smart e-Center we have set up in the area to access the Internet using Smart Wi-Fi," Quiñal said.

Apart from EDGE and Smart Wi-Fi, Smart also deployed its latest service – 3G or third-generation mobile technology. As such, subscribers with 3G-capable handsets have been making video calls to and from the site. In addition, the 3G infrastructure also allows high-speed Internet access for subscribers.

Moving forward by being prepared

A lot of lessons can be learned from the Guinsaugon tragedy. Most important is putting into place preventive measures alongside rehabilitation.

"In times like this, we can only be grateful that at least, we have the capability to readily deploy the technology and deliver the services that could help save lives," Quiñal said.

Mon Isberto, Smart public affairs head agreed. "Because of our past experiences in providing emergency communications assistance, we are also supporting efforts aimed at increasing community disaster preparedness in hazard-prone areas," he said.

Following the aftermath of the December 2004 Quezon tragedy that has similarities with the Leyte disaster, agencies are conducting pilot projects centering on disaster preparedness.

One of these projects is the development of a community-based early warning system in the municipalities of Real, Infanta and General Nakar in Quezon under the REINA project of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs). Coordinating agencies also include the Department of Science and Technology, Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, Mines and Geosciences Bureau-Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Office of Civil Defense and National Disaster Coordinating Council.

The project involves the distribution of early warning devices to the critical barangays of Real, Infanta and Nakar that are vulnerable to flooding, landslides and tsunami.

Smart is supporting this project with providing communication systems requirements ranging from the low-tech batingaw to the high-tech mobile phone.

In particular, the batingaw will be used in such a way that "warnings" of impending disaster from one community are relayed to another.

To date, the company has donated some 75 batingaw made from recycled acetylene tanks as well as 10 two-way radio sets. Information leaflets were also distributed to the critical communities.

"We are hoping that collaborative efforts geared toward increasing community disaster preparedness shall continue in the future and in other hazard-prone communities in the Philippines," said Phivolcs director Renato Solidum Jr. in a letter to Smart.

Phivolcs is looking at replicating the Quezon project in other areas like Calapan, Mindoro Oriental.

"In a country where disasters are part of life, preparedness should come as second nature. Communications – high-tech and low-tech – are an important part of being prepared," Isberto said.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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