Satellite phones provide vital link in Haiti

Satellite communications have been at the heart of the relief effort in Haiti. The experts at satellite communications service provider Iridium report on their role

Satellite phones provide vital link in Haiti

The day after the January 2010 7.0 magnitude earthquake left much of Haiti in ruins, Doug Lane, of Project HOPE, arrived at the airfield in the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince. As a logistics specialist for this medical assistance and health education non-profit organisation, Lane quickly saw that the facility had no electricity, computers or telephone service. Despite this lack of infrastructure, his task at hand was to determine as best as possible the types of medical supplies the injured needed, where life-saving drugs could be safely warehoused and what types of medical specialists were in most demand.

The lack of communications infrastructure in Haiti did not thwart his mission. Equipped with an Iridium satellite phone, Lane transmitted SMS text messages to Project HOPE’s US headquarters in Virginia, outlining the critical needs.

The earthquake, which hit around 10 miles outside Port-au-Prince, knocked out most of the island nation’s telecommunications infrastructure. The few cellular towers still operable were quickly overwhelmed with the enormous surge in traffic.

In the first few days after the earthquake, Iridium Communications Inc. and other mobile satellite service providers offered virtually the only
voice and data communications lifeline to the outside world for first responders, rescue workers and relief teams rushing into Haiti.

Arriving four days after the earthquake, Eric James, leader of a relief team from the American Refugee Committee – a humanitarian non-profit – said his cellular mobile phone remained inoperable for nearly two weeks of his month-long stay. His team relied on Iridium handsets to help co-ordinate the delivery of essentials such as blankets, buckets and plastic sheeting for shelter.

Real-Time data
‘The relief commodities were brought in by airplane and by boat, and co-ordinating that requires a lot of phone calls back and forth, not only with our headquarters in the US but with the people bringing in the supplies,’ says James. ‘The Iridium phones made that possible.’

The satellite communications connection proved vital for Project HOPE. Days after Lane arrived in Haiti, Ruth Madison, Project HOPE’s technical adviser for the health of women and children, was riding on a bus outside Port-au-Prince, using an Iridium handset on a call with the US office to report first-hand on damages sustained by hospitals that Project HOPE has worked with in the past.

‘Every once in a while the bus would stop and you could hear yelling, but her voice was so clear,’ says Kendra Davenport, Project HOPE’s director of corporate and foundation relations back in Virginia. ‘She provided the kind of clinical assessment and real-time data that put us ahead of the game. It enabled us to contact the necessary volunteers and to send out requests for donations. We were able to transmit very quickly, for example, that those hospitals needed a variety of generators.’

At one point, more than 50 organisations were relying on Iridium handsets in Haiti. They included news media, such as CNN and NBC; various agencies of the US Government, including all branches of the US military, the US Department of Homeland Security and the US State Department; Brazilian and Argentine Government officials and UN peacekeeping troops; in addition to several US airlines; and a range of missionary, humanitarian and medical relief groups.

‘Within 48 hours after the earthquake, phone traffic over Iridium’s network of 66 cross-linked, low-earth orbit satellites increased exponentially,’ says Tim Johnson, Iridium’s director of global sales strategy.

By the third day, traffic to and from Haiti, mainly around Port-au-Prince, had surged 18,000%, surpassing the traffic Iridium typically handles from its three largest geographic markets.

‘Our robust satellite network and service ensured Iridium was well-positioned to provide the reliable, critical communications lifeline that we had quickly become in the aftermath of the disaster,’ adds Johnson. 

Based on lessons learned from past natural disasters, Iridium and its 200 worldwide distribution partners were prepared to respond quickly when company officials got word of the Haiti earthquake minutes after it hit.

‘Iridium keeps a stock of equipment equal to a two month rolling inventory for emergency situations,’ says Ted O’Brien, Iridium’s VP for the Americas. ‘We also have ongoing discussions with our distribution partners so that we can keep the supply chain flowing and facilitate the rapid deployment of phones, equipment and airtime to first responders and relief groups that need a reliable way to communicate.

‘In addition to Iridium’s voice and texting capabilities, many organisations involved in disaster relief and recovery operations are also using Iridium’s short-burst data service to keep track of their assets on the ground, such as food, equipment and supplies,’ he adds.

Quick response
Two Iridium distribution partners in Florida, GMPCS Personal Communications Inc. and Global Satellite, were particularly instrumental in quickly moving large numbers of Iridium satellite phones into Haiti. Both companies are located near airports that US relief workers have used to go into Haiti.

‘We supplied 600 to 800 phones in less than a week,’ says Jon Klein, GMPCS general manager. ‘We always maintain an inventory of around 250 phones and we immediately ordered several hundred more from Iridium.

They were able to ship a steady stream of a couple of hundred phones to our warehouse every day. We had phones going to first responders the very first night.’

Martin Fierstone, general manager of Global Satellite, says his company moved 150 Iridium phones in stock within two days, and demand remained steady for about 10 days. 

‘Many of our relief organisation customers needed solar panels and solar backpacks to keep the phones charged up and ready to use,’ Fierstone said. ‘These accessories work easily with Iridium equipment and we were able to provide entire kits to our customers so they had full peace of mind that they would have a constant connection.’

Project HOPE’s Davenport says her organisation works in nearly 80 countries on regular medical missions, typically working from US Navy hospital ships. As the Haiti disaster demonstrated, having access to a satellite network with global reach like that of Iridium is essential, she said.

‘One mission can visit 14 countries, and often very few have landlines you can use, let alone a working wireless signal to call out,’ she says. ‘Knowing Iridium works everywhere relieves the burden of having to rethink our telecoms setup every time we deploy to a new location.’

Even when initial relief efforts subside in Haiti, Davenport said
Project HOPE will continue its work there – and their Iridium satellite phones will remain vital tools for maintaining critical communications with the rest of the world.

‘We are deploying a team with three or four global health specialists on the ground to assess what we’ll need to do to assist the people there in future months,’ she adds. ‘The Iridium phones will be indispensable to the longer term care we provide as Haiti rebuilds.’

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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