Into the eye of the storm: how TSF met the challenge of Irma

GTB Editor
Published on:

Teams from Télécoms Sans Frontières were ready with equipment for the arrival of Hurricane Irma in September, when it devasted the Caribbean and southern US

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The communities of the Caribbean and southern US are all too used to hurricanes, but the recent hurricane Irma was something extraordinary, setting records for its duration, power and impact. Its path impacted millions.

It was clear from the outset that Télécoms Sans Frontières, the global emergency telecoms charity, would be needed. TSF quickly positioned a team from its global headquarters in France to Guadeloupe some 24 hours following the passage of Irma, soon reinforced by the regional team based in Mexico. 

The first task for the team on the ground was to obtain authorisation from officials allowing them to deploy out to two of the worst hit islands, Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthélemy.

A first emergency response team arrived in Saint-Martin and worked throughout the night to set up the first satellite Global Xpress (GX) connection in the island’s coordination centre. 

As the terrestrial network was unstable across the island, TSF’s equipment allowed relief workers to coordinate medical evacuations, delivery of material and human assistance, and the provision of emergency accommodation. Working with the island’s authorities, further connections were installed across Saint-Martin, including access for local residents.

A second team was dispatched to Saint-Barthélemy with VSAT and BGAN satellite solutions to work alongside relief bodies and rebuild family and social links across the island. 

The needs on the two islands show the flexibility TSF needs to have in its approach and the technology it deploys. On Saint-Martin TSF was able to quickly get a high bandwidth WiFi network up and running, not only to enable relief workers to quickly connect to the information and resources they needed, but importantly to allow the local population to use their own smartphones to access the internet, connect with social media and to communicate quickly with loved ones, giving a quick, scalable solution that rapidly empowers people, but without tying up valuable voice lines. 

For TSF an event like this, a disaster you know is going to happen but cannot predict the exact impact, presents unique challenges: where to deploy, with what technologies and when? While expert weather forecasters can give a likely track and direction of a hurricane, they cannot give an exact path – and a 50 or 100-mile variation in location makes a huge differences in its impact and who is affected.

The location and the nature of the community hit by the force of the storm and where TSF will deploy makes a massive difference to the type of support that is needed. In some circumstances the priority is helping provide humanitarian aid; the population needs the basics of food, water and shelter. In other circumstances, while there might be massive damage, there is a more robust infrastructure. Here the priority might be focused on relief and on getting basic services repaired, back up and running. TSF saw both scenarios with Irma. 

However, in both circumstances a priority is always coordination with the authorities, relief agencies, charities and the NGOs on the ground, where terrestrial infrastructure and mobile networks have been knocked out.

Fortunately, with the support of its partners, TSF has the technology needed to help whatever the circumstances.