The importance of communications when disaster strikes

Ericsson is celebrating 20 years of Ericsson Response, a program that provides connectivity to humanitarian workers dealing with natural disasters and medical emergency relief efforts. We take a look at how connectivity is at the heart of humanitarian response.

Ericsson Response Haiti

In 2000, a group of Ericsson volunteers had an audacious idea. They already understood the power of communication technology and the role it could play during a disaster in a way no one else did. Today, this may seem obvious, but it wasn’t then. To provide some context, at the time I was using an Ericsson T28 flip phone with voice and texting only – and it was a full seven years before the smartphone took off and mobile internet became a central part of our daily lives.

These volunteers realized that they could provide invaluable assistance to humanitarian workers – that the ability to connect within and outside of a disaster zone would allow them to do their jobs more effectively and ultimately save lives.  They started Ericsson Response, an emergency relief program that focuses onproviding connectivity to humanitarian workers in the field.


Creating a role for humanitarian communication 

Over the past 20 years, Ericsson volunteers have participated in more than 50 missions in 40 countries around the world. This includes natural disasters like Hurricane Maria on the islands of Dominica and Puerto Rico as well as Cyclone Idai in Mozambique. But it also includes medical emergencies like the Ebola crisis inwest Africa and protracted crises in places like South Sudan, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Ericsson Response is a stand-by partner to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and a partner of the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC), a global network of organizations led by the WFP that provides communications in disaster situations.

The ETC is on the scene and provides vital security communications services and voice and internet connectivity within 48 hours of a disaster.  Our volunteers literally drop everything to be there.

Ericsson response team helping people


The evolution of disaster response

Today, communication and connectivity are so integrated into society that they are equally –  and in some cases more – important than physical supplies, because of what they enable. And when Ericsson Response volunteers arrive after a disaster, they are responsible for the delivery and the distribution of connectivity to the outside world.

Traditionally, you might think about humanitarian assistance or aid as being food, blankets or water. In the very first missions, just being able to make a phone call was a breakthrough in humanitarian relief. Today the humanitarian sector is undergoing a digital transformation just like many other industries. With theevolution of data capabilities – and the ability to make video calls and gain access to organizational and other crucial information in real time – we can enable a much more comprehensive response for those in need.

For example, in Mozambique in 2019, re-establishing connectivity meant the World Central Kitchen could deliver tens of thousands of meals to the affected population. Doctors Without Borders was also able to set up a cholera treatment unit and be connected to all the tools and information that they needed to help stem and treat the spread of the disease.

Climate change is leading to more frequent, more severe natural disasters, mass displacement and community upheaval. In the case of Mozambique, cyclones with the strength of Idai have historically hit the country every nine years. But in 2019, two cyclones slammed into the country within weeks of each other.

Connectivity is part of our social fabric

From the start, we have focused on the immediate priorities of the humanitarian workers in the field. But communication capabilities are now incredibly important to the daily life of billions of us, and that includes disaster situations.

People affected by disasters need to be in touch with family. They need access to information about aid, jobs and education. It has become integral to provide connectivity to affected communities.

LP Svensson is an Ericsson Response staff member.  He remembers how we started to see this organic shift towards expanding our mission.

It was after Hurricane Maria in Dominica in 2017.  Ericsson Response volunteers had always provided some connectivity to the wider community if asked, but on a very small scale.  Then in Dominica, LP and other volunteers noticed 200-300 people regularly gathering by the gates outside the airport. They were trying to get on the network.

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We saw that on the satellite link that we still had capacity, so we put an access point out there. We then expanded the network into some hospitals and other places where people congregated.

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“We saw that on the satellite link that we still had capacity, so we put an access point out there,” he says. “We then expanded the network into some hospitals and other places where people congregated.”

At first people simply needed to communicate with the outside world. But gradually, he says, people were able to use their connectivity to help re-establish some normalcy into their post-disaster life.

View of IHP camp


Ensuring we remain connected today and tomorrow

What is unique about Ericsson Response volunteers is how global we are. Volunteers come from 32 countries and speak 32 languages. They also represent key competencies from around the company, ranging from technology and engineering expertise to sourcing and supply and communications.

But no matter the role, the common element is commitment and dedication to the mission at hand – a combination of passion, commitment, sacrifice and professionalism.

The Ericsson Response program is a combination of partnerships forged across two decades and built on trust and experience. We all understand the humanitarian context that has delivered a positive impact to relief efforts and affected communities for 20 years.

Another key strength is the adaptability of the program. I’ve seen our people adapt as humanitarian challenges have evolved over time.  And I see it right now as we face new challenges from climate change.

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During natural disasters, it becomes clearer than ever that communication is a basic human need and should be available for all.

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When people aren't connected, when they aren't able to reach loved ones or friends, they feel extremely isolated.  You can see this starkly with the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders that have come into force since the Covid-19 outbreak.  In times of crisis, it becomes clearer than ever that communication is a basic human need and should be available for all. Lars Magnus Ericsson, a young Swedish engineer, founded Ericsson in 1876 on this premise.

We’ve seen it manifest itself in such a variety of ways in the past 140+ years, and Ericsson Response is, I think, one of the clearest ways that we’ve remained true to this belief.

Learn more

Read more about Ericsson Response.

Read Lars Ruediger’s blog post ‘Ericsson Response: connecting volunteers and partners to help people in need’.

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