Satellite technology remains an integral part of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure, enabling first responders and relief workers to establish vital communication links when it matters most.
Recognizing its significance, relief organizations are exploring ways to adapt the technology, deploy new strategies and foster cross-sector partnerships to better manage crisis. To step up their capabilities to support relief operations, satellite operators are also introducing new initiatives to keep pace with the evolving needs of relief workers.
Delivering effective disaster preparedness
In the immediate aftermath of disasters, the disruption of terrestrial communications infrastructure can pose a significant barrier to first responders from carrying out critical relief operations.
Najwa Ayoub, Market Development Manager at Thuraya, said, "In the absence of cellular connectivity, mobile satellite services (MSS) serve as the first line of critical communications as it can be rapidly set up. Thus, satellite operators have an integral role to play in making sure that MSS is effectively integrated into disaster preparedness policies."
Working closely with governments to ensure that emergency centers are well equipped with satellite phones and terminals, satellite operators can also help by carrying out periodic testing on these equipment to check if they are functional and fully charged, and conducting regular training to familiarize aid workers with the latest tools.
Drawing from his experience, Steve Birnbaum, Chairman of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response (HA/DR) Programs at the Global VSAT Forum (GVF), highlighted the importance of having dealers to ensure sufficient inventory of devices to support both local governments and international NGOs.
"On-ground relief staff should be able to rely on local dealers to provide immediate access to MSS equipment. This is most often not the case; there has always been a need to quickly provide an additional surge of equipment, and this presents a significant operational challenge," said Birnbaum.
Empowering first responders with vital communication links
Setting up a reliable communications infrastructure is vital to any emergency response, and the main challenge in doing so is ensuring the rapid and effective deployment of satellite equipment to enable first responders to coordinate relief efforts.
During the recent Ebola outbreak, first responders needed immediate access to communications tools to support the use of telemedicine across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone—only for government customs regulations to prevent the equipment from being shipped in a swift manner.
This demonstrated the pressing need for more countries to fulfil the objectives of the Tampere Convention and remove customs restrictions for vital communication equipment during crisis, as well as emergency procedures to facilitate approvals for aid organizations to rapidly import and operate these equipment.
Having worked during the Ebola outbreak, Dr Cosmas Zavazava, ITU Chief, Projects and Knowledge Management said, "The pandemic made us realize how crucial it is for different governments and NGOs to work together to facilitate cross-border movement of necessary equipment, avoid delays by custom controls and deploy satellite communication tools rapidly to expedite relief efforts and ultimately save more lives."
For satellite operators, specific devices or product features can help ensure that the MSS equipment deployed meet the demands of various on-ground relief operations—from providing on-site medical care to deploying emergency response vehicles.
"We have aid workers setting up temporary command centers, which require satellite broadband terminals that are reliable and interoperable; and then we have first responders, who in turn rely on vehicular broadband terminals such as the Thuraya IP Commander to facilitate communications on-the-move for damage assessments and medical evaluations," Ayoub explained. "We should also consider the use of consumer-oriented MSS devices which can further enable relief workers to gain quick and easy access to MSS during emergency situations with tools they are familiar with, and enable them to focus on their core relief missions."
Facilitating efficient post-disaster rehabilitation
The role of satellite technology extends beyond the immediate aftermath of crises, and remains key in the rehabilitation of disaster-affected communities—especially in the transition period between satellite-based emergency communications to reconstructed terrestrial networks.
As proper terrestrial communications infrastructure often take months to be fully restored, MSS serves as the bridge to VSAT deployment for local governments and international relief agencies to continue on their efforts in rebuilding the communities.
Gisli Olafsson, Emergency Responder Director at NetHope, had a unique perspective on the role of satellite technology in the rehabilitation process, having been closely involved as the NetHope lead for several relief operations.
"The shift from immediate response to post-disaster rehabilitation may take weeks, if not months to complete," said Olafsson. "At some stage, this would involve the installation of VSAT networks at locations near the affected communities, or even the establishment of terrestrial communications infrastructure over a wider geographical area for a considerable period of time. During this transition, MSS devices still serve an important purpose in keeping relief organizations well connected to continue its rehabilitation efforts in the months to come."
Bridging relief efforts through satellite technology
It is clear that satellite technology plays an important role across the different stages of emergency response planning and management. However, a crucial part of staging successful large-scale relief operations involves the collaborative effort of the broad spectrum of players—from local government agencies to international humanitarian organizations—to put aside business interests and instead, place the needs of disaster-afflicted communities first.