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UN Disaster Relief Teams Get High-Tech Boost

United Nations emergency response teams will have the ability to place state-of-the art telecommunications technology on the scene within 48 hours of a natural disaster anywhere in the world, as a result of a program announced this week. U.N. officials say the development will dramatically improve the world body's emergency relief capability.

Tsunamis and earthquakes often strike in the most remote places. With modern transportation, emergency relief teams can usually reach the scene within hours.

But once there, the challenge for workers is to communicate, both with each other and with the outside world.

A frustration often voiced by aid workers is that they encounter victims in desperate need, then watch them die because there is no way to alert nearby sources of assistance.

With this in mind, a group of French aid workers several years ago formed an organization called Telecommunications Without Frontiers, or TSF. Their idea was to rapidly deploy communications teams to wherever disaster strikes.

The concept has proven successful, but its scope has been limited. Now, with the spread of cellphones and wireless Internet connections, the potential for saving lives is growing exponentially.

This week, the United Nations Foundations and the European telecommunications giant Vodafone announced a five-year, $2 million plan to make TSF's state-of-the-art facilities available to U.N. emergency missions worldwide. TSF spokesman Oisin Watson suggests that future disaster scenes will quickly become high-tech telecommunications hubs. He explains how the new system would work when a disaster occurs.

"Now there's an earthquake strike in Indonesia or Pakistan. We have three regional bases, so whichever region in which the disaster happens, we'll deploy the base in the region to arrive within 24 hours, and we'll put up a tent and deploy within half an hour, we'll put up computers, data transmitters, satellite equipment, and we'll create more than a cyber cafe, a telecom center, with phone, fax, internet, all communications facilities you have in an office," he said.

Assistant U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Margareta Wahlstrom hailed the telecom centers as "a crucial link" as the world body takes on a larger role in coordinating disaster relief operations. "They are there within 24-36 hours, which is crucial for lifesaving, after that, the more heavy part of the system will come in, make the system larger, longer term and resilient, so they are that crucial link for lifesaving," he said.

Dan Toole of the U.N. children's agency UNICEF, says the same technology used in natural disasters can also be used for manmade tragedies. "I was the representative in Rwanda and before that I was in the refugee camps inside Tanzania. And as people came across the border, they were frightened, and many were wounded. They were along rivers, so we would try to find people, but then would have to drive back up to mountain to where our stores and supplies were, and wouldn't get back down to them till the next day. In that day, children died, and what's so exciting about this partnership is, when we find those people, we can call immediately and say, we are here, here's our location, there are 200 people who need medicine, they need food, they need water. So it's a direct support for saving lives, and that's our business," said Toole, who iis a veteran of humanitarian relief operations in places like Rwanda and Tanzania.

Toole notes that little more than a decade ago, when the genocide in Rwanda was unfolding, modern-day telecommunications technology didn't exist. "Today it does," he said. "And we're using it."