Setting up wireless LAN in the midst of devastation: one network engineer's experience as a volunteer in post-earthquake Haiti.
On March 5, I stepped off a plane at Port-au-Prince airport and was confronted by two things: oppressive heat and chaos. Down the stairs and onto the tarmac we went. It looked like a war zone. But it was actually the aftermath of the tremendous earthquake in Haiti.
Just two weeks earlier, Mads Lillelund, the CEO of my employer, Bluesocket, had asked for a volunteer for an important project -- deploying donated Bluesocket wireless LAN equipment at a Haitian hospital. A Boston-area philanthropist had assembled a team of doctors and nurses, medical supplies, clothing and technology that was going to help the St. Marc-based Pierre Payen hospital. Dow Chemical lent a plane, and Exxon donated the fuel to get us to Haiti and back. I jumped at the chance to go.
Immediately after our arrival at the airport, 12 medical personnel and I began unloading our airplane full of relief supplies. Other volunteers joined in, and soon there were a hundred or so people running to and fro, partitioning goods into piles based on their destination: clothes for the local mission, medical supplies and Bluesocket Wi-Fi technology for the hospital at Pierre Payen.
Departing from the airport, we were immediately confronted with devastated buildings and armed military guards walking amongst them. We drove two hours in a ramshackle bus from the airport to the mission in St. Marc. The mission and Pierre Payen hospital were separated by a dusty dirt highway, Route 1, where traffic regularly flew by at 60 mph. Our team would stay at the mission, and I was responsible for setting up WLAN access for both the mission and hospital.
For years, Internet access for the mission and hospital had relied on a satellite connection. The connection was available in a single room of a single building in this sprawling eight-building campus. 2G mobile-phone access was available, but not reliable as the Haitian providers sustained major infrastructure damage during the quake.
At the hospital, power was sporadic. A diesel generator ran during the day, and a battery-powered system took over at night. There were frequent power dips and surges, and we could see where neighbors had spliced into the system, desperate for power. There was no water at the hospital, and much of the equipment in the mission and hospital was broken and/or dated to the early 1980s.
Steve Mossburg, head of the mission, explained that Internet access was crucial for the doctors and other clinicians volunteering at the hospital. Reliable Internet access would allow doctors to research procedures, collaborate with colleagues stateside and request supplies, which would all improve patient care.On my first full day, I set up a Bluesocket network controller at the main mission building, connected to the satellite modem, and began mounting access points throughout the mission property. Live wires ran everywhere, making for a heart-thumping deployment. In the end, I made it out mostly unscathed. But when it came time to deploy points across the street at the hospital, I ran into a problem -- the highway.
Wirelessly bridging the 1,000-foot gap across the highway would not be a problem -- but getting myself back and forth across the highway without getting killed might be. In this seemingly lawless area, no speed limits were enforced. We had witnessed multiple car accidents and even saw a local girl being hit by a speeding car. In order to hang all the access points and test connectivity, I would need to cross the road at least a dozen times. I decided to call in reinforcements.
Steve paired me with a local man named Cenofa who aspired to be a computer scientist. In recent years he had shadowed other technical volunteers at the mission. I trained Cenofa in the basics of WLAN infrastructure. Together we installed the remaining access points and tested the connections -- me on one side of the highway, Cenofa on the other. Cenofa was sharp, and he learned how to use Bluesocket's WLAN equipment so quickly that the mission hired him as a network administrator at the end of my week there.
This was far from a typical implementation -- I, for one, had never before needed to hang an access point in a tree, or work three feet away from a doctor performing an amputation. However, once set up the effect of the Internet was obvious to everyone.
It was gratifying to see the impact the Internet had on the location, and witness doctors enabled with life-saving information. They frequently reminded us of the power of this project and how grateful they were. One morning, while I was eating breakfast, an American plastic surgeon working at the hospital grabbed my laptop to study up on how to perform a hysterectomy he was performing in 20 minutes.
Though I accomplished the mission I set out to do, I left with an unsettled feeling -- for the Haitians there is so much left to do. This is an experience I will remember for the rest of my life. Those that have devoted their lives to helping Haiti, like Steve, put my contributions to shame. But Steve also reminds us of the large and lasting impact we have made on the mission, the hospital and its patients.
Duane Compton is a senior engineer at Bluesocket in Burlington, Mass. For more information on how you can help, visit http://www.bluesocket.com/haiti_relief.htm.