Emergency Comms | ICT4SDG | Infrastructure
March 5, 2019

How ITU is strengthening emergency telecommunications in the Americas

By Miguel Alcaine, Representative of the ITU Area Office in Tegucigalpa, Honduras

In recent years, the increasing number of disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and floods has highlighted the urgency of establishing strong telecommunication systems, which are essential if medics, firefighters, police and others are to provide effective relief during emergencies.

In the aftermath of disasters, alternative telecommunication systems are often needed to replace normal systems that have been damaged or destroyed. ITU membership has recognized this need: For many years, emergency telecommunications has been a priority in the Americas Region.

In 2018, ITU teamed up with regional telecommunications bodies in the Americas such as la Comision Regional Tecnica de Telecommunicaciones (COMTELCA), the Inter-American Telecommunication Commission (CITEL) and the International Amateur Radio Union (IARU) to set up an alternative telecommunication system for use in times of emergencies. The system does not rely on conventional means of communication such as the Internet, but rather on amateur radio systems.

The benefits of Winlink

The alternative telecommunications system used is known as Winlink, a worldwide email service that uses radio pathways and is capable of operating completely without the Internet.

Winlink is well-known for its role in emergency and disaster relief communications, providing its users email with attachments, position reporting, weather and information bulletins. The system is built, operated and administered entirely by licensed volunteers.

It has a proven track record for emergencies. As recently as 2017, Winlink was extensively used in the aftermath of the high-impact hurricane season in the Caribbean and also after the earthquake in Mexico.

Nodes are an important part of the Winlink system. A node is a point of connection within a network. They are the major centers through which Internet traffic is typically routed.

ITU and partners: from ideas to action

The commitment to develop a cooperation mechanism for the implementation of projects on the use of ICTs for emergency and disaster situations in the region was officially formalized in 2017 in Argentina with a letter of intent signed by ITU, CITEL, COMTELCA and CTU.

At the beginning of 2018, ITU started to implement the project using Winlink in cooperation of IARU and the ‘Federación Mexicana de Radio Experimentadores (FMRE). ITU and FMRE worked in collaboration with COMTELCA to define the specifications of the equipment.

COMTELCA brought the Central American Integration System for natural disaster prevention, mitigation and response (CEPREDENAC) to the table.

The role of governments

Governments have played an important role in project implementation. This was necessary for effective coordination among telecommunications authorities, organizations responsible to respond to emergencies and radio-amateur associations.

Governments have also provided some equipment and carried out preliminary work to start operations. National partnerships were built among relevant entities, to procure the needed equipment, deliver trainings, and increase awareness of Winlink.

The project has built and strengthened synergies among different entities at the national, regional and international level and helped highlight the role of amateur radio systems in disaster management.

ITU stands ready to expand this project in all beneficiary countries, and counts on the cooperation of IARU and FMRE to bring this solution to the whole Americas region.

The Global Forum on Emergency Telecommunications (GET-19) takes place from 6 to 8 March in Balaclava, Mauritius. A special session on case studies and lessons learnt from the Caribbean region will be held on Wednesday 6 and will be webcast here.

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How ITU is strengthening emergency telecommunications in the Americas

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