How we learned to innovate disaster technology from Typhoon Yolanda

Karrie Ilagan (The Philippine Star) - October 21, 2019 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — In 2013, the Philippines met one of the strongest typhoons ever recorded in history—Super Typhoon Yolanda. Over 14.4 million people across the country were affected by the level 5 typhoon which left damages estimated at around P35.528 billion leaving 3.6 million people displaced.

 Often, in any natural calamity or man-made disaster, communication and connectivity are critical lifelines as these facilitate collaboration between key responders and hasten effective response.

This is where Cisco’s Tactical Operations (TacOps) team came in. TacOps is a crisis response group dedicated to establishing emergency networks in the event of a disaster.

Responding to the calamity of Typhoon Yolanda, the TacOps team had to stage their set up first in Manila to test their gear and make sure nothing was damaged on the way. As they were being mobilized, the team had 5,000 lbs of equipment and supplies airlifted in by the Philippine Air Force to their designated areas.

TacOps was assigned to two separate areas of deployment: one in Guiuan, Borongan to help the team plan, coordinate logistics, and manage intelligence better outside of the disaster zone where services and infrastructure were up and normal, and another in Tacloban where any form of communication or infrastructure were at a zero. By establishing this set up, the team was able to establish a network that was used by different responders in Tacloban to exchange critical, often life-saving information. The operation lasted for weeks with Cisco technology providing that crucial link between aid and victim.

While the TacOps operation was deemed a success, there were many challenges that the team had to overcome. During a calamity, the first few hours are the most crucial, and first responders need to be onsite at the soonest possible chance. However, at the time, Cisco’s disaster solutions were elaborate and sophisticated – transporting 5,000 lbs of equipment was no easy feat. And as the TacOps team could not be onsite forever, non-technical users were not able to fully utilize the technology as they lacked the know-how and training to operate the equipment.

Because of these factors in responding to the aftermath, Cisco innovated the technology it had and developed the Rapid Response Kit (RRK)—the simplest of all our communication kits. The solution can provide both wired and wireless voice and data connectivity to serve as a preliminary response in the early hours of a relief effort.

Based on the challenges the TacOps team encountered transporting technology across deployment areas, the RRK was built to be small and light enough to be transported as carry-on baggage and easily fit in overhead compartments of airplanes. It was developed for easy deployment consuming less power as an interim solution for areas that lacked infrastructure and could be deployed by non-technical personnel. Further, the kit was made to be sustainable, having the potential to aid the day-to-day business of municipalities it was deployed in once rehabilitation efforts kicked-in and progressed.

Yolanda happened in 2013. The RRK was developed within months and was first deployed for the Carlton Complex Wildfire in East Washington in 2014. This is how quickly technology can be innovated to provide solutions for many of our country’s challenges.

 In fact, communication technology is currently being developed in the country to help save lives through faster connection between victims and governing bodies via the internet, mobile devices, apps, and even social media. Communication technology’s benefits also spill over to the Rehabilitation aspect of our local Disaster Risk Reduction and Mitigation (DRRM) as it could provide channels where help can easily be asked and accounted for.

 While communication solutions enrich these two phases of DRRM, there is also great potential to take it a step further toward awareness and preparation to lessen casualties or prevent loss of lives in the first place.

 The core and weightier component of our DRRM – reducing risk through preparedness and education – empowers us to regain control over even the most unexpected emergency situations with due diligence and foresight. To do this, it must involve integrating existing infrastructure with communication systems that are quick and easy to dispatch.

Ilagan is the managing director of Cisco Philippines.

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