My experience with Ericsson Response in Haiti
It’s amazing to see firsthand the difference that communication can make to communities in crisis, and what a vital role it plays in saving lives. Ericsson Response is a volunteer initiative that deploys employees and telecom equipment to support the UN and other humanitarian organizations in times of disaster. I recently had the opportunity to participate in a mission to Haiti, where access to communication technology is making a big difference in the effort to assist the people affected by Hurricane Matthew.
When the winds dissipated and water levels receded in Haiti on October 4, 2016, it quickly became clear that more than 1,000 people had been killed and approximately 1.4 million more were in need of humanitarian assistance. Some buildings were destroyed completely, while others had their roofs ripped off. Communications were down and fields once thick with coconut trees had been stripped bare.
Within days of the UN’s request for communications support, the first Ericsson Response volunteers arrived in the disaster zone. They quickly set about identifying the best location for a satellite dish and Wi-Fi access points, and finding a power source to enable internet connectivity. Once they established the Wi-Fi network for the main UN camps, they extended it to the compounds of the other NGOs. The creativity and ingenuity of these first responders is amazing: I saw access points attached to coconut trees, makeshift car battery UPSs, and Ethernet cables patched through destroyed buildings – whatever it took to get the job done.
Arriving in Haiti
I landed in Port-au-Prince on December 5, two months after the hurricane struck, where I met Gilles Philippe Gregoire, the Canadian Ericsson Response volunteer who was deploying with me. The next morning we boarded a UN helicopter heading to Jérémie. As we flew, a familiar feeling came over me. Almost three years ago to the day, I had been on an Ericsson Response mission to the Philippines, sitting on a helicopter headed to a disaster zone that had been struck by Typhoon Haiyan. The familiar feeling was a mixture of nerves, adrenalin, an eagerness to help and some small worry that something might go wrong that I wouldn’t be able to fix.
When we landed in Jérémie we met Alberto Juarez Casado (Spain) and Johan Haraldson (Sweden), the two Ericsson Response volunteers we would be replacing. Evidence of Matthew’s destruction was visible all around us. The rubble of destroyed houses was largely untouched, the fields were a mess of fallen trees and debris, and almost all of the power lines were down. The new corrugated sheeting that had been used to repair some of the roofs shone in stark contrast to the surroundings. Alberto and Johan showed us the network and explained all the daily maintenance activities required, such as changing generators, activating users or checking coverage. It was a lot to take in – more than 200 UN & NGO staff were being served by a Wi-Fi network that covered the whole town.
How I helped
I left Gilles in Jérémie and continued on to Les Cayes, where I spent most of my month-long deployment. I was happy to find that the network set up there by the first volunteer team was quite stable. There was even some ISP connectivity! On top of keeping the network running, I helped out in any other way I could. One day, I might be helping to set up printers and get new users registered on the Wi-Fi network, and the next, I’d be heading out to the Save the Children compound to help restore their satellite connection.
In conjunction with its food drops, the UN was trialing a cash based transfer program while I was there. The idea was to provide cash directly to the locally affected communities so they could rebuild more independently. Local university students gathered the community details and I helped to collate all the data from the Android phones they were using and upload it to a server for the UN to review and initiate the cash transfer.
Spending the holidays in Haiti was a bit surreal but it gave me a lot of perspective. Though it was strange to be away from my family, it was a worthwhile sacrifice to support those in need. One of the highlights of my mission came just before Christmas when I had the opportunity to help with a food drop to a remote mountain community. After the helicopter dropped us off, hundreds of villagers came running down to us, and our first task was to get them organised before the helicopters returned with the food. Over the next few hours, we distributed 8 tons of food. Taking part in that effort was an incredible experience that will stay with me for life.
My mission came to an end on January 5 when I returned to Port-au-Prince to catch up with Gilles and perform a handover to the next volunteer team made up of Tore Andre (Sweden) and Marian Piffko (Germany).
I am so proud to work for a company that takes corporate responsibility so seriously and supports programs such Ericsson Response, Technology for Good, Connect to Learn and many others. To be able to see firsthand the difference that communication can make to communities around the world, and its ability to help save lives, is a very motivating and humbling experience.