Communications as Survival

‘Storian hemi laef blong yumi’ – Telecom Vanuatu’s new slogan could not be more true.

In times of crisis, communication and coordination enable us to survive and to recover quickly.

When an earthquake occured between Samoa and Tonga early in the morning of September 29th, it created a tsunami that struck the inhabitants on the eastern and southeastern parts of the island within minutes. Sirens sounded and church bells rang all over side of the island, sending people fleeing to higher ground.

The latest reports from Samoa indicate that in addition to at least 149 dead, 640 families comprising roughly 3200 people have lost their homes and possessions. Most have yet to to return to their villages, and are without proper access to power, water and other basic amenities.

Food, water, clothing and shelter are all critical elements of the relief effort.

Equally important is the ability to communicate.

As I write this, many Port Vila residents are still feeling shaken following another tsunami warning caused by an 8.0 magnitude earthquake Thursday morning at the far northern tip of the Vanuatu archipelago. Happily, it was a dud. Boaters in Port Vila harbour reported a minor swell, nothing more. Two more tremblors measuring above 7.0 were felt that day, further raising anxieties.

Within 15 minutes of the tremor, the first official warning was issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. A few minutes after that, warnings began to be issued via email, web and broadcast media. Shortly before the wave was due to arrive, downtown Port Vila was a ghost town. Shops, schools and businesses were closed in Santo as well.

It was encouraging to see the speed with which the information was disseminated, and how care was taken to ensure that the news was accurate and timely.

Following the cancellation of the alert, there was much discussion about how things could have been done better. Among the problems mentioned were traffic jams caused by parents attempting to collect their children from schools, closed although most were situated on safe high ground and never in danger.

Others suggested that TVL and Digicel should collaborate to send broadcast SMS messages to their client base. While a commendable idea, we cannot rely entirely on such media. SMS operates on a best-effort basis, but voice traffic always takes precedence. So if everyone starts phoning family and loved ones – as happened this morning – their calls will take precedence. The busier the network, the slower the rate at which SMS messages can be sent.

Also, it’s impossible to send messages to people based on their location. From the perspective of the equipment used to send these messages, you’re either on the network or you’re not. Exactly where you are is impossible to determine.

While useful, SMS can only be a part of the solution. Broadcast media and good old-fashioned warning sirens are still the most direct and effective way to get the message out.

Tellingly, none of the the warnings that I saw originated from the government unit designated to deal with these situations. While the Geohazards unit and the Meteo office were quick to disseminate details via radio, TV, web and email, the National Disaster Management Office was nowhere to be seen.

Government resources are limited, it’s true. While every effort is made to provide accurate, detailed and up-to-date information, resources are always stretched. Esline Araebiti, Geohazards Manager, described her efforts to keep tabs on recent volcanic activity on Gaua’s volcano. Dormant since 1982, it recently began to show signs of life, and has since been upgraded from level 0 (dormant) to 1 (increased activity, danger near crater only).

The first people to notice this renewed activity were the people of West Gaua. With neither mobile nor landline service available, they used a teleradio to contact provincial authorities in Sola on nearby Vanua Lava, where the message was relayed to the Geohazards Unit.

(It’s hoped that the Government’s Universal Access Policy Fund will improve communications capacity in this extremely vulnerable area.)

Luckily, portable sensing equipment was available, and members of the unit embarked immediately for Gaua. The equipment uses satellite technology to send monitoring data back to Vila and onward to the US Geological Survey’s international network.

Thursday’s earthquake was centred about 150 kilometres from Gaua. There is some concern that the disturbance might cause increased activity in the volcano. Much like a can of soda when it’s shaken, an earthquake can cause the explosive release of gases from magma chambers deep below the earth’s surface. Gaua’s lava chamber lies immediately below a lake, so there’s significant concern that if it’s breached it could cause a catastrophic explosion. Authorities are therefore watching carefully to see if the volcano’s status should be upgraded yet again.

The kind of sensing equipment deployed in Gaua is costly to purchase and maintain. NZAID and the Pacific Fund have been assisting the unit in establishing a permanent monitoring station on Ambrym to track activity on Marum and Benbow volcanoes. These stations use Digicel’s GPRS service to provide lower-cost communications. Results so far are quite positive, though there have been technical issues with Digicel’s tower located in nearby Ulei village.

Sylvain Todman, a consultant working with the Geohazards unit, stated that there is a critical need for additional equipment. Currently only two volcanoes are monitored on a full-time basis. There is an immediate need for six such stations, located on Tanna, Epi, Ambrym, Ambae and Gaua. Each station costs between $12-17,000, plus regular service and maintenance – not too expensive, considering the lives that might be saved.

The September 29 tsunami took between 5-8 minutes to reach the coast of Samoa, and only a few minutes more to strike Tonga and American Samoa. Thursday’s false alarm provides an object lesson on the importance of timely, accurate and systematic information sharing, both in acquisition and dissemination of geohazard data.

Communications is, after all what makes us human. And what keeps us safe and alive.