Published on 17th February 2014
Vanuatu’s disaster communications plan has been given a ground-breaking overhaul, supported by VSA volunteer Simon Donald. The country is now the first in the region to have a text-message disaster response system.
Like all Pacific Islands, Vanuatu is vulnerable to natural disasters, such as cyclones and earthquakes. The National Disaster Management Office relies on reports from affected communities to inform its response, but Simon says they found that information could take a week, or even two, to reach the NDMO.
To cut short those delays, Simon and the NDMO set up the automated text message service. Leaders of Community Disaster Committees text a short code related to the type of impacts in their area. These texts are automatically collated and mapped, showing where help is needed most urgently.
While the short codes are not new, traditionally they’d be phoned in, Simon explains. The text message service was harder to set up, he says, but is better in a country where cellphone reception often can’t support a call, and requires less staffing.
The NDMO has had successful trials of the short-code system in simulation exercises with community workshops, though Simon notes he’s pleased there’s been no real-world need for it yet. “It’s a catch-22,” Simon says, “the testing went really well, but we want a disaster to really test it. But we don’t want a disaster!”
In the far north, the Torres and Banks Islands are a “black hole” for cellphone coverage, he says, so work there involved strengthening “backbone” communications – HF and VHF radios. With the UNDP and the Red Cross, Simon formed the Torba (Torres and Banks) HF Radio Project, and furnished the islands with seven new HF radio stations, and trained local operators on use and upkeep.
While they have set times to check in with one another via radio, “outside of those times, everyone just natters away”, says Simon. The radio rooms have become central hubs, “which is a good kind of extra bonus”, he adds. “It’s improved their lives, not just for decreasing vulnerability to disasters because we can now really effectively warn them when there’s a threat, but they can now talk to each other, talk to the island over really easily, without having to take a boat across which can be expensive, often dangerous if the weather’s not good.
“It’s really turned the Torres – which is about 150km in area from top to bottom – into a village that can talk to each other really easily.”