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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Saving lives with telecommunications

Life, they say, has no duplicate. Making a save of it, especially at emergencies is key role of telecommunications, hence the call on all stakeholders to see telecommunications as a life-saving infrastructure, writes REMMY NWEKE.

Preamble:

Many a times people underrate the value of communications, especially at emergencies depending on their state of the minds, but once this piece of technology is activated, the trend seems to change; from saving lives to receiving aids of different sort.

In the delivery of communications, telecommunications plays an unparallel role in enthroning a new order in a disorderly environment occasioned by emergencies which could arise as a result of one disaster or another.

Emergencies come in various degrees but in most cases such arising from natural disaster seems to be very massive whenever it occurs. An instance was the recent earthquake in Japan which disasters disrupted the national economies.

A major concern has been the fact that the impact usually leaves many, especially the poor further weakened and in fact more vulnerable, thereby causing a clog on the wheel of progress, moreso in the sustenance of development and reduction of poverty in developing nations.

It was on this light that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recently brought its Global Emergencies Response effort to bear on the Japan earthquake.

The Japanese sad story:
Overtly described as Japan’s most influential earthquake ever on record; at the north-east coast, triggering a massive tsunami, forcing vehicles, sea-fares and edifice to be swept away by a wall of water after the 8.9-magnitude tremor, which struck about 400km (250 miles) north-east of Tokyo.

Although a state of emergency has since been declared at the nuclear power plant, which was reportedly to had emanated excessive pressures with officials putting death toll to about 350, while over 500 persons were declared missing, whereas in the community of Sendai, a port city in Miyagi prefecture, dead bodies numbering between 200 and 300 were found.

The quake was the fifth-largest in the world since 1900 and nearly 8,000 times stronger than the one which devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, in the month of March according to scientists, reports BBCnews and has even triggered the shutting of four other nuclear plants safely, the United Nations Nuclear officials said.

… Ego trip:
Reacting to the Japanese latest earthquake, the United States’ Secretary of State, Mrs. Hillary Clinton said the US Air Force had flown emergency coolant to the site. Although later it was discovered that the Japanese insisted on handling the situation themselves.

Looking at the above scene, one cannot but appreciate the impact communications may have brought to bear on the situation. Therefore, the decision by ITU to contribute towards ameliorating the impact of the earthquake cannot be over-emphasised.

A call and evacuation of Nigerians in Libya:
Investigations revealed that it was reportedly a few telephone calls to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nigeria as well as some highly placed individuals at the presidency, which paved the way for the Nigerian authority to realize the need to evacuate Nigerians from the trouble zone of Libya recently.

As aftermath, President Goodluck Jonathan represented by his Vice president Namadi Sambo, at the end of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting on February 23, 2011, ordered the evacuation of Nigerians stranded in Libya, even as criticism was gaining momentum that the government response was slow.

According to Sambo, evacuation plans had commenced in the North African country, Libya, which has a high figure of Nigerians, who regularly use the country as a departure route to Europe.

Briefing newsmen as follow up to FEC outcome, the Information and Communication Minister, Mr. Labaran Maku, said the council discussed the situation in Libya and the Middle East and the condition of Nigerians in these countries.

Equally speaking at the briefing, the Foreign Affairs minister, Mr. Odein Ajumogobia, said the situation is being monitored by his ministry, assuring that Nigerians will be evacuated from Libya’s biggest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi on.

Close contact @ emergencies:
“We are in close contact with our envoys. I want to assure Nigerians that the President is committed to ensuring the safety and security of our citizens. I want to assure you that whatever measures are necessary would be taken to ensure their safety and security.”

Ajumogobia declared, adding that Nigerian diplomats in the country have since evacuated their families as is the custom so that they can concentrate on the work at hand.

As at March 17, the evacuation of about 4,000 with the last batch of 194 Nigerians stranded in Libya, including the Nigerian embassy officials, according to the Director General, National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), Mr. Muhammad Sani-Sidi, particularly those who registered with the Nigerian Embassy at the Tripoli International Airport.

In a related development, a special team made up of officials from NEMA, Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, National Commission for Refugees, Nigeria Immigration Services, Civil Defence Corps among other relevant security agencies was set up to receive other passengers that may be brought in by the International Organisation for Migrations (IOM) and United Nations Agency for Refugees who have continued to evacuate stranded citizens through Libya’s neighbouring countries like Egypt and Tunisia.

What the aforementioned shows, mostly ‘we are in close contact with our envoys” is that they were communicating which has been made possible through the instrumentality of telecommunications being available.

Emergency communication and ITU:
Experts agreed that without communication through broadcasting and physical telephone communications a lot of fears should have taken over the situation thereby heightening it to an alarming rate through the fear of unknown; if it could extend to communities, especially based on the childhood understanding of ‘nuclear’.

For ITU led by Dr. Hamadoun Toure, as its Secretary General, the impact could have been worse for those living in remote and isolated areas with no access to basic information and communication facilities that are essential to providing vital alerting information. And in order to mitigate the impact of disasters, timely dissemination of authoritative information before, during, and after disasters is critical.

ITU’s activities in the field of radiocommunications, he said, makes invaluable contribution to disaster management as they facilitate the prediction, detection, and alerting through the coordinated and effective use of the radio-frequency spectrum and the establishment of radio standards and guidelines concerning the usage of radiocommunication systems.

Technical Standards for emergency communication:
As said by him, ITU’s telecommunication technical standards also play a strategic role in ensuring global interconnection and interoperability of telecommunications networks for monitoring and management at the onset and during emergency and disaster situations.

“A number of recommendations have been developed for call priority schemes that ensure that relief workers can get communication lines when they need to, whether using traditional or next generation communications networks,” he revealed, stressing that complementary to providing call priority during emergencies, the ability to deliver warnings to users, and standards are fundamental to ensure that warnings are timely delivered uncorrupted from the source to the end users – no matter how they could be reached.

He explained that the development arm of the ITU considers emergency telecommunications as an integral part of its development agenda; hence, a lot of effort is directed at mainstreaming disaster management in telecommunications using information and communication technology projects and activities as part of disaster preparedness.

“This includes infrastructure development and the establishment of enabling policy, legal and regulatory frameworks. In the immediate aftermath of disasters, ITU deploys temporary telecommunications/ICT solutions to assist countries affected by disasters,” he said, underscoring that these include provision of basic telecommunications and telemedicine applications via satellites.

Reconstruction and rehabilitation of telecommunications/ICT networks, Toure said, is an important part of disaster management and by providing assistance for disaster relief and response, ITU undertakes assessment missions to affected countries aimed at determining the magnitude of damages to the network through the use of geographical information systems.

A vote for Haiti:
On the basis of the findings, he continued, ITU and the host country embark on the resuscitation of the infrastructure while ensuring that disaster resilient features are integrated to reduce network vulnerability in the event of disasters striking in the future.

The Japan intervention by ITU is not the first, having taken a similar step in early 2010 after the Haiti earthquake struck on January 12 with the voting of over $1m USD, about N151,646,794.97 to strengthen the disaster response efforts in Haiti.

According to the chief media relations and public information, Mr. Sanjay Acharya and chief of division, Emergency Telecommunications, Mr. Cosmas Zavazava, both of ITU an estimated 40 satellite terminals were being deployed soon after the disaster to re-establish basic communication links and a further 60 units with broadband facility were to be dispatched along with experts to operate them.

The duo disclosed in a joint press statement made available to ITRealms Online that ITU had set up a Qualcomm Deployable Base Stations (QDBS) known for its reliability, responsive and complete cellular system designed to enable vital wireless communications aimed at strengthening response and recovery mechanisms in a disaster zone.

Dr. Toure was quoted as asserting that the world was shocked following the devastation and untold misery caused by the earthquake in Haiti and promised that ITU would do everything possible to provide assistance to the people of Haiti by re-establishing telecommunication links, which is key to vital to rescue and rehabilitation efforts.

Upholding the Tampere Convention:
What the above means is that ITU is living up to the Tampere Convention of the United Nations, which notes that when disaster strikes communications links are often disrupted. But for disaster relief workers these links are essential to answer critical questions such as how many people have been injured or died, where they are located and the medical help needed.

“Even though telecommunications can save lives in disaster situations, regulatory barriers can make it difficult to use the necessary equipment,” he noted, adding that ITU was a driving force in drafting and promoting the Tampere Convention.

ITRealms Online recalls that Tampere Convention allows relief workers to make full use of life-saving communication tools; it also calls on States to waive regulatory barriers that impede the use of telecommunications, which ordinarily comprise licensing requirements to use frequencies, restrictions on importing equipment and limits on the movement of humanitarian teams.

So, it is very crucial for states to understand this fact and make every arrangement possible in preserving telecommunications infrastructure within their vicinities, because this could help immensely in the event of any emergency before international aid like that of ITU even get near.

Therefore, any collaboration with the national regulators of telecommunications like the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) in this regard as well as the telecom operators must be fanned and encouraged, rather than vandalizing such infrastructure for self-aggrandizement.

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