Checklist for Disaster First-Responders: Food, Blankets and Wi-Fi

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An Irish-based aid agency has developed a wi-fi system for use immediately after a natural disaster, when communications can be near-impossible. The US Navy is testing it this week.

An Ireland-based aid agency is working with the US Navy in a disaster simulation at Camp Roberts, Calif., this week to test a local communications system in an effort to improve telecommunications in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters.

When disaster strikes, whether in Indonesia, Haiti, or Japan, the aftermath is much the same: chaotic. As the government, various charities, and family members struggle amid downed telephone lines to find and communicate with missing persons, communications are notoriously slow-going and disparate.

If successful, the new system will allow NGOs, charities, other relief organizations, as well as survivors and relatives, to share communications. It would significantly reduce the chaos surrounding the aftermath of a disaster, obviating the need for separate groups to set up multiple private networks and drastically cut the time it takes to rescue and connect disaster victims.

Disaster Tech Labs, a charitable organization founded by Ireland- based Dutchman Evert Bopp, is behind the project. Mr. Bopp, an IT businessman, says he got the inspiration from watching what happened during the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami.

He says the project finally crystalized when he got involved in the relief effort after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. After he developed ad hoc networks on the ground in Haiti, under the name Haiti Connect, Bopp decided to attempt to codify the setup and to take it global.

"When I went to Haiti I thought, 'I'll do this for six months, it's my contribution to society, and that'll be the extent of my work.' Two and a half years later, I'm still working at it and can't see the end," he says. "Do I want to chase big bucks I've done that for most of my life or do I want to make a contribution to the world?"

He made a call for donations, and by February 2010 had received $8,600 in cash donations to cover expenses, plus $200,000 of telecoms equipment from California-based hardware manufacturer Aruba Networks.

Bopp says the Haiti experience taught him that communications can be easily improved in any future natural disaster simply by recognizing what kind of devices people have and rapidly building ad hoc networks that support them. His new plan, being tested at Camp Roberts, is to deploy within days of a disaster.

Aruba Networks has donated a further $50,000 in equipment, he says.

"If the UN or Red Cross deploys to a disaster area, they bring their own radio equipment, he says. [But] wi-fi devices are so ubiquitous, why not built a network using it?" he says. "The only communications still up-and-running after Hurricane Katrina was the recently installed metropolitan wi-fi network."

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Others working on the ground after catastrophes welcome the idea.

Andrew Hogg, head of media at the UK-based charity Christian Aid, says the organization would be happy to see any improvement in communication with the field in a natural disaster.

Christian Aid was one of the many nongovernmental organizations that arrived on the scene of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. Initially, communications between London and the scene were close to nonexistent, he says.

"Telephone lines were down, and we couldn't use mobiles to make communication. I was taking calls throughout the night from journalists asking what Christian Aid was seeing, and for quite a while I wasn't able to answer the question.

"We did have [satellite] phones but they have limitations. Anything that can be thrown into the mix to offer another avenue for communications would be extremely valuable. We need to check on the safety of staff, obviously, but we also need to alert people to the scale of the disaster as accurately as possible," he says. …