UN mobilizes portable satellite phones for disaster relief

10 July 2006

Stepping up its efforts for disaster mitigation and relief, the United Nations today announced an agreement with the Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications Company to provide portable satellite terminals, a major factor in rescue operations.

“The tsunami that wreaked havoc in south East Asia, the Kashmir earthquake, the Suriname floods, and the Indonesia earthquake have demonstrated the power of emergency telecommunications in saving lives and coordinating efforts during rescue operations such as the setting up of telemedicine links,” said Yoshio Utsumi, Secretary-General the UN International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which concluded the accord.

Thuraya, the United Arab Emirates satellite-based company, is contributing handheld satellite terminals along with solar chargers, while ITU will pay for airtime at discounted rates offered by Thuraya and cover transportation costs of telecommunications equipment to and from disaster-hit areas. ITU will also provide its expertise in technical and operational training for government officials involved in rescue missions.

In the light of a spate of recent natural disasters, the World Telecommunication Development Conference meeting in Doha in March called upon ITU to develop solutions in emergency telecommunications directed at improving early-warning communication, disaster preparedness and mitigation.

This is a critical area of concern especially for countries with fragile economies and special needs, such as least developed countries and small island developing States.

Access to information is of paramount importance in the immediate aftermath of a disaster for relief agencies to coordinate search-and-rescue, medical intervention and rehabilitation efforts. There is an urgent need to establish effective and comprehensive communication links between the affected area, national disaster response facilities, and with the larger international community.

Ironically, terrestrial communication links are almost always disabled and disrupted during the first hours of a major disaster. The Thuraya terminals, which support voice and data applications and remote location determination services via global positioning satellites (GPS), will help provide that vital link via satellite.

When regular cellular networks are available, Thuraya handsets can switch to the terrestrial network for greater affordability.

Fast communications also form an essential element in the tsunami early warning systems the UN is coordinating, based on quake and tidal sensors, alarm networks ranging from radio to cell phones and text-messaging, and disaster preparedness training to ensure timely evacuation of vulnerable coastal areas.

Experts believe that had such a system operated in the Indian Ocean at the time of the 2004 tsunami, it would have given hundreds of thousands of people several hours between the time the quake spawned the tsunami off the Indonesian island of Sumatra and its landfall in places like Sri Lanka and Thailand to flee to higher ground.


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