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Haiti relief effort draws overwhelming flood of tech-trained volunteers

Aid agency says new volunteers need too much training to help in Haiti now

By , Network World
January 18, 2010 10:04 AM ET

Network World - Tech-savvy volunteers have swamped the relief agency Telecoms Sans Frontieres with offers to deploy with the earthquake-relief effort in Haiti where the group has already deployed two SWAT teams armed with satellite gear, Wi-Fi equipment and rapid-response training.

But the offers have been turned down because volunteers need extensive training in how to survive and how best to operate in areas where disaster has struck, says Paul Margie, TSF's U.S. representative.

Tech Tools Tell the Story of Earthquake in Haiti

The group sends its workers to school at the University of Pisa in Italy before assigning them to one of TSF's three permanent bases around the globe. "We just can't add people in the middle of a disaster," Margie says.

In Haiti, the agency's teams are trying to create access to the local telecommunications systems so survivors can call out to let relatives know how they are, but also to set up communications between rescue centers on the island.

Each team member comes in with one suitcase for personal belongings and a limited array of technical equipment, which consists mainly of three things: a Bgan communications hub, an M4 satellite transceiver and a very small aperture terminal (VSAT) ground station.

The equipment is used to establish satellite links out of the disaster zone to connect relief workers to support staff and to provide connections for residents to phone out.

If the core of the local phone system works, the TSF volunteers use their training to tap into it and establish telecommunications centers where banks of phones can serve local populations.

The group works in partnership with United Nations relief agencies that have more resources. TSFs role is to fulfill the communications needs of these groups, Margie says.

Beyond broad telecom knowledge, volunteers need training in disaster logistics and part of the curriculum is training in hostage situations, he says. TSF has sent teams to Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines, among other places in its 10-year history.

The group was founded by general aid workers in the Balkans who found that civilians affected by war sought use of the communications gear before asking for food and clothing.

Before heading off to Haiti, a TSF team based in Nicaragua was working with health officials there to gather infection data via SMS to map out where an outbreak of dengue fever is worst to help plan mosquito-spraying efforts, Margie says.

Corporate sponsors of the group include Vodafone, Cable & Wireless, Inmarsat, Comcast, AT&T, PCCW International and Eutelsat.

Read more about wireless & mobile in Network World's Wireless & Mobile section.

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