Blog from Mike Adams of First Response Radio, 20th December 2013.
Following the catastrophic Indonesian Tsunami in 2004, it took a month for us at First Response Radio (FRR) to get a radio station up and running. While that was a great achievement in difficult conditions, we didn’t think it was fast enough and we subsequently made it our organisational goal to set up a radio station within 72 hours of a disaster striking.
While we didn’t actually achieve this with Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), we managed to accomplish it within six days, with it taking only 72 hours from the time we decided to deploy to having a complete radio system established and broadcasting to the affected populations around Tacloban city – one of the areas that bore the brunt of the typhoon.
Our strategy had improved dramatically since the Indonesian Tsunami, and the approach of First Response Radio now is to buy equipment, train teams, and ‘practice’ in disaster prone countries such as Philippines, India and Indonesia before disaster strikes. FRR is also looking to launch operations in Cambodia, Myanmar, Pakistan & Kenya in the near future. For Haiyan, this meant we had the equipment ready on the ground and had also built up relationships with local communities, officials and aid agencies; we had also provided emergency radio training to some of a diverse local team. Our partner in the Philippines is Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC) which has been working here since 1946.
While the training we have given to people has been important, the magic really happens in the 3-day field trials that we run. This enables us to put things into practice in a disaster-prone area under realistic field conditions. When people work and sweat in the field together their relationship becomes stronger, and when disaster strikes they will do virtually anything for their team. FRR seeks to build this kind of team in disaster prone countries before disaster strikes and has been taking this approach since 2007.
How did this play out for FRR in the Philippines? Well, we had done a training event previously and had completed exercises with local teams, but that was several years ago. In fact after a training event in Manila in 2007 we actually took the radio kit away with us after we had completed the training. But since then we realised each country needs is own kit and have changed our strategy to always leave the radio kit behind. Nonetheless this meant that some of the necessary equipment was missing when I arrived in the Philippines, two days before the Typhoon hit. Thankfully our local partner, FEBC, had been putting together a community radio station and had a transmitter compatible to work with our system … that was providentially delivered the very day of the typhoon. FEBC was also able to provide a bunch of volunteers to operate it too.
However, if we were there before the Typhoon hit and were well prepared with equipment, why did it take so long before FRR became operational? The answer is obvious if you think about it a bit. After the storm hit, all communications were down and it was impossible to work out what was going on where, so it took over three days to confirm there was a need for our team. Typically the humanitarian system carries out a rapid needs assessments to find this out: this is a large task and was made more difficult in the Philippines due to it being composed of lots of islands. It was also complicated by recent local elections. Normally the assessments confirm that power and communications are down, but it was not clear from this assessment whether there was still radio broadcasting in the affected areas. This is a real paradox: when people need the most help is when communications are down and nobody knows what is going on. In the end we read an article in the Manila NEWSPAPER that quoted Secretary of the Interior, Mar Roxas, saying: “…all systems, all vestiges of modern living - communications, power, water - all are down. Media is down, so there is no way to communicate with the people in a mass sort of way.” After we read this we knew we had to go!
Because our local partners in FEBC, operating in the Philippines since 1946, had long standing links with the government and communications authorities (NTC) it only took a short phone call to get verbal authorisation. NTC Chief Engineer Alvin Blanco had been expecting a call requesting permission for an emergency license. When he got the call from FEBC President Dan Cura he simply shouted across the phone “Just Go! Paperwork will follow, Just GO!” So there we were with our ‘radio in a suitcase’. Actually it’s a few suitcases, but it’s small enough to carry with us on any standard flight as checked luggage. It’s a complete radio system and generally we only need a 4-5 person team to operate it.
Going into a disaster zone is always a challenge and it was certainly no easy road to Tacloban. Even with tickets and boarding passes in hand we got bumped off some flights and had to fight hard to keep our seats even after we boarded the planes. At one point I thought “why are we working so hard to get into a place that SO many people are trying to flee?” but that is the nature of the early responders. Landing in Tacloban airport 30 minutes before dark after an arduous journey, I had never been so happy to see the UN OCHA flag and meet the two guys in blue UN vests who were the “Reception Center” – we were in the right place. After signing in and getting a short briefing they said we could get a ride on the back of a relief truck that was going to City Hall. “If your team is not on that truck in 5 minutes it will leave without you – it will NOT wait!” The drive at night thru the worst part of the city felt like a scene out of some “end of the world” type Sci-fi movie. The devastation was truly shocking.
We linked up with some of the guys working under the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) guys there at Tacloban City Hall, one of the main stations for responders, which was a great help because of our shared goal and the fact they could help us keep our generator powered with fuel! When actually on the ground in the city it took no time at all to get things going and we were on the air by 9AM the next morning. When setting up our station we used bamboo poles, pipes, duct tape, anything we could find to get our small antenna erected. I was glad that back in 2007 we had already work out our emergency licensing protocol with NTC which got us our license so quickly.
Once on air we broadcast emergency messaging to local communities so they knew what to do if a particular situation affected them, for example, relating to shelter, hygiene and sanitation. The mayor played his part and went live on air; he issued an inspiring challenge to all the people to come “Back to work” on Monday about 10 days after the storm. He invoked the Filipino spirit of pulling together, or Bayanihan, and if they did that they would pull thru together. One great cooperation boosted the number of people who could hear our station: the Public Information office (PIA), the development communication arm of the Philippine government, put mobile loudspeaker units into trucks and had them tuned to our station. On the advice of the mayor we placed 120 radios in Barangay halls and evacuation centres so that a larger number of people could be reached. In the end we managed to get messages specific to the needs of the community relayed, some relating to healthcare, finding families and basic service access and the ‘Ask the Mayor’ slot got a really positive reaction. People were being assured that the world had not forgotten them. Our story and activity in general was in turn tweeted about and even gained news coverage.
What did we learn?
The value of the personal relationships we had built due to our previous operations in the Philippines is inestimable. This enabled us to get things going with the relevant people on the ground quickly and meant we didn’t have any legal barriers to overcome in the way of licensing from the authorities. Also, the trust we had previously built up with communities created closer relationships which in turn resulted in a shared belief in our mission and what we are trying to do.
We also learnt that even if we are as prepared as we can be, as a radio team there are still other factors that make it difficult to move as quickly as we’d like to. Firstly, awkward geography can make both logistics and communications a nightmare. In the Philippines there are sparsely populated islands that have been extremely difficult to reach in this time of crisis. Secondly, simply working out what is going on immediately after disaster strikes enables the humanitarian response to activate sooner. This requires needs assessments quicker than have been carried out before – we NEED assessments within 24 hours! Both of these elements rely on greater coordination not only between responders but with communities on the ground. We need new strategies to get needs assessments completed quickly and the community plays a big role in this – using the Communicating with Disaster-Affected Communities (CDAC) Network we can work together to make the changes necessary to ensure affected communities come first in disaster response.
Mike Adams, First Response Radio