Red Cross uses Navy nous for communications

Satellite phones can be as small as some cellphones but they are not robust, says New Zealand Red Cross

In New Zealand, we’re accustomed to reasonably fast, reliable communications, but in the disaster areas where the Red Cross often finds itself, distances can be vast and any communications infrastructure may have been destroyed.

In places like the Pacific Islands, the climate is also pretty inhospitable to technology — it’s hot, it’s humid and corrosive elements such as salt are carried on the air. Yet, like any modern organisation, the Red Cross has come to rely on its communications and sees such as indispensable to its work.

In unpredictable situations there are really only two reliable channels, but they both have some drawbacks, says Matthew Lloyd, the Pacific region’s manager of emergency and administrative communications for the New Zealand Red Cross.

One channel is high-frequency radio, but it is somewhat unwieldy — requiring long aerials and a degree of skill to cope with varying conditions in the ionosphere. In contrast, satellite phones can be as small as some cellphones and can be “sent in an envelope to get them fixed when they go wrong” — he told a breakfast meeting of the NZ Computer Society last week. However, they are not robust and, despite their appearance, they cannot be used like a phone.

“On a telephone, you have a conversation. On radio, (which is what satellite phones really are) you pass messages.”

There is no time for pleasantries. You think about what has to be said in advance and get it said as quickly and clearly as possible, says Lloyd.

Satellite phones use the Iridium satellite network, which means users need to have a general idea of the nearest satellite’s current position and also know how to read the signal-strength indicator that helps point the phone the right way.

The Iridium phones used by the Red Cross are more fragile than radio equipment and calls are charged by the minute, while radio communication essentially costs nothing, once the equipment has been set up.

Lloyd, whose experience includes a stint with the Royal Navy — spotting possibly hostile submarines from a helicopter — as well as organising communications for New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, was recruited two years ago to set up a reliable communications network for the Pacific region.

“It’s no good just throwing hardware at people,” he says. There also needs to be training, along with incentives to use the equipment. Accordingly, he has negotiated a $50 allowance per phone, per month. This only allows about 15 minutes of non-essential talking time, “but it gets people using the phones, so they don’t forget how to.”

And, to deal with the climate, the phones are enclosed in watertight briefcases, with a variety of plugs and a pair of crocodile clips — to be sure of connecting to any power source that’s on hand — and, as a last resort, a solar panel.

Laptop computers are provided to Red Cross offices, but these must be connected to landlines for communication, says Lloyd.

“The data-rate of Iridium phones is so slow. It would be quicker to read out a spreadsheet than transmit it.”

Software on the laptops is “locked down” and no data is put on the hard drive. It all goes to a USB-attached drive. Then, if a virus is contracted or the system fails in some other way, standard recovery from CD is all that is needed to restore the machine to its original condition.

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