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Every year Faith Based Organizations globally dispatch thousands of volunteers to assist with disaster relief. How do these organizations stay connected and what can be improved?

Imagine troops deployed in hostile areas – a vision of a soldier standing beside a desolate mountain with rifle in hand, might come to mind. However, Super-Storm Sandy changed that for me. As thousands of rescue workers, relief volunteers, and government agencies converged on the damaged areas, I noticed they relied on many different types of communications devices. Regardless of which device or protocol, they all shared an unending need for power.

America has come to an interesting crossroads of priorities during these types of emergencies. Many people grab their Smartphones instead of family heirlooms. This is an interesting evolution when comparing pictures of evacuees carrying hand tools, clothes, food, and personal mementos from past years to evacuees holding their Smartphone today.  This makes sense because Smartphones are capable of holding thousands of personal files, photos, and videos. Understandably, without power and a network, the Smartphone is not as impressive. After Sandy hit, around 25% of the cellular networks were down for days. The burden of finding power adds to the reality that Smartphones are a powerful but needy tool. A variety of external power solutions are available for USB devices but without a network, power isn’t the only problem.

I realized three of the largest faith based organizations in the country, The Red Cross, The Salvation Army, and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) all used different methods to keep people connected. A few common pieces in each communication caches were satellite phones. The Salvation Army had its own Amateur Radio Division, called SATERN (Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network) or trained volunteer Emergency Communications team. Volunteer Amateur Radio Operators staffed radio equipment at hospitals, police stations, and emergency operations centers to coordinate resources.  While their numbers are unknown, they have the tools to connect people through HF, VHF, and UHF radio frequencies. I’ve found many Emergency Operations Centers seem to have this type of equipment already installed and tested routinely. The radios were not limited to just local transmissions, but could transmit cross-country with proven repeater technology. This type of infrastructure seems very resilient in the wake of other communication faults. During Sandy, this was the only way for some hospitals to connect with resources. The combination of satellite and radio communication modes allowed users to preserve the satellite resources for one to one communications and the Amateur Radio Networks for one to many broadcasts. The two resources together save money, since satellite transmissions are charged by the minute and radio broadcast are free.

The Red Cross has a similar approach to the Salvation Army and utilizes the same communications technology with the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES). ARES are volunteers peppered around the country and can be activated through Memorandums of Understanding with the American Red Cross, the National Weather Service, The Salvation Army and others. The agreements lay out general guidelines for organization and coordination between agencies during emergencies. They train and adhere to common best practices and FCC rules. The Southern Baptist Convention also has satellite and radio capability to coordinate rescue and relief efforts. So, if these monolithic volunteer organizations have made the investment in satellite technology and have access to a relatively free army of licensed and trained radio operators, what is missing?

The people in the afflicted area are not carrying the latest KENWOOD 144/440 Dual Band Handheld Transceiver. Instead, they have a Smartphone that needs a network and power to be useful. Getting the Smartphone to interface to the amateur radio network is difficult without extra equipment and training. Basically, cellular companies use licensed frequencies to transmit voice and data to Smartphones. Smartphones have the ability to communicate with cellular networks by authenticating with the nearest cellular tower. The tower has a box called a record located service to send interrogation signals. This lets the cell phone company know where the Smartphone is so the nearest tower can deliver the message or call. Internet can be accessed, along with text messaging and voice. If the tower is not working, voice and data stop. It is impossible for a Smartphone to make a call without the tower, or is it?

Many new Smartphones have a secondary data protocol which allows the Smartphone to connect to an available Hotspot even if the tower isn’t working. Once the Wi-Fi connection is established, the Smartphone user can presumably access the wireless local area network through the Hotspot. If the Hotspot is hooked up to the Internet, the user is now on the Web and can probably get E-mail or even make Voice Over IP calls using applications like Skype or Google Talk. If a disaster relief team had a piece of equipment that could interface the popular Smartphones to a Hotspot, assessment teams would now be able to communicate with the local population and citizen first responders. Of course, this piece of equipment would have to be able to charge up those Smartphones too.

 

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