Community resilience through effective communication system
Brgys. Bitaugan, Cagusu-an, Canawayon, Casuguran, Culasi, Habag, Inapulangan, and Pagbabangan in Homonhon Island, Guiuan, Eastern Samar
Conrado Saceda Jr. (Team Lead), Members: Helevira Salera (Finance Staff), Carmi Cadlum Macapagao (Community Relations); Francis Panugaling, Jesus Tadeo Manuel (Technical Specialist)
A communication system that is designed to connect people from island barangays during disasters. It is made out of locally-available materials so that the community can set up and maintain the system easily.
All island communities in the country are prepared for disasters because they can set up and maintain their own communication system and that they are knowledgeable on emergency communications protocol.
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The PECOJON can be tapped by local government units, NGOs and other private sectors to provide assistance in net call, designing communications protocol, training of effective and proper radio operations, and assembly of homebrew antenna.
0977 825 0556
t’s truly difficult in these parts when there is a disaster, because there is a lack of communication. We would only try to evacuate once typhoon made landfall. We had no idea if we were in the eye of the storm or how much time we had, and evacuation would be next to impossible because huge palm trees would be falling around us.
In this day and age, we’re used to having mobile data or Internet access on our cellphones. At any given time, we’re able to make calls to emergency services. When you send an SMS message, it arrives instantly. Here in Homonhon, even if your display shows that you have full signal capacity, texts don’t send out and calls don’t go through. So in the event of an emergency or disasters, where needs can change every hour, how does one communicate?
In times of disaster, isolated coastal communities get the short end of the stick, left for weeks without valuable, every day necessities. By establishing an emergency communications protocol, the Island communities is enabled to communicate as effectively as possible before. During and after emergencies. They are not only equipped with the necessary information and procedure, but they are also given the knowledge on how to construct any damaged or destroyed communications equipment with the use of items commonly found in their homes.
When most people think of Homonhon Island, much of what they consider is its historical value as Magellan’s first landing site in the Philippines, and very little else. Homonhon has a population of less than five thousand, comprised of 27% children, 11% youth, and 47% women. Of the 12% of elderly women located on the island, several of them live by themselves and have received little organizational support, much like other vulnerable sectors on the island.
The island is accessible from Guiuan mainland via boat rides which take anywhere between two to three hours per way. It is common practice among locals and especially visiting tourists to travel only at certain times of the day, as the sea swells up between 19 to 26 meters, making travel much more dangerous and lengthy. Even internally, parts of the island are only accessible by boat, and in cases of severe weather that prohibit sailboats from being able to dock, these parts are left to fend for themselves without the possibility of the replenishment of supplies.
Barangay Captain Freddie Gapati says that during the onslaught of super typhoon Yolanda in 2013, the intense winds brought about significant wreckage. Luckily, there was no flooding on the island, but residents feared the possibility of incoming storm surge, and many risked their lives to evacuate the island. “It’s truly difficult in these parts when there is a disaster, because there is a lack of communication. We would only try to evacuate once typhoon made landfall. We had no idea if we were in the eye of the storm or how much time we had, and evacuation would be next to impossible because huge palm trees would be falling around us.” He adds, “Cell phones lose service even when we experience the winds of the amihan season, making it impossible to call for help from Guiuan. When we can’t reach out, the island can end up going for as long as two weeks without any food.”
While many would argue that cell reception is technically available on the island, it is a common practice for residents to leave their mobile phones at the highest points of their homes to ensure that messages are received. SMS messages are often delayed, and it’s not uncommon for residents to climb uphill just to find a substantial enough signal to make calls. This also means that any emergency text blasts or use of mobile data to survey and monitor incoming weather are rendered useless. Because updates are also unavailable, there’s no way for MDRRMO to communicate the speed at which the predicted typhoon is traveling or when it is expected to make landfall. Residents airing on the side of caution refuse to travel for more supplies; consequently trying to survive on dwindling stocks by the time the typhoon arrives.
In the aftermath of Haiyan, UN agencies and international NGOs issued at least 25 two-way radios and 4 fixed base stations to communities in the municipality of Guiuan, which includes Homonhon. The system would prove to be the most efficient means of communication, especially when mobile phones are ineffective even in normal weather. However, when the innovation team conducted a technical assessment in the development of this project, they discovered that the utilization of the system has been poor at best. There has been little to no maintenance of two-way radio equipment, with many sitting in drawers and sealed in plastic. Antennas have been turned off, and the municipal DRRM office says that when it conducts its daily roll calls over the two-way radio system, only a handful respond. The culprit in this instance is assumed to be the limitation of prior training to radio use and laws, instead of in-depth training into how to utilize the equipment in emergency situations.
Cellular signal is not at all dependable, regardless of weather, which makes it even less so in times of disaster. As such, some organizations found it invaluable to include two-way portable radio units in disaster response kits left with the community. One group established a communication system through which villages on Homonhon could directly connect to Guiuan. These, however, remain severely underutilized.
Repeater systems on the island have needed severe rehabilitation. Repeater towers have been found to have their guy wires severely corroded, resulting in misalignment and affecting the efficacy of transmission. Other antennas were not high enough to maximize their reach. Others had compromised power sources, either needing new solar batteries, or needing to be rewired for solar because of the village’s lack of electrical resources.
The lack of communication on Homonhon is what keeps the island in a state of being taken by surprise. Both residents on the island, as well as those traveling by sea to and from Homonhon, are in need of a much more reliable means of communication. To boost DRRM efforts, it’s not enough to hand over the equipment, but to have processes and people to make sure the systems are being used to their full capacity.
“In this day and age, we’re used to having mobile data or Internet access on our cellphones. At any given time, we’re able to make calls to emergency services. When you send an SMS message, it arrives instantly. Here in Homonhon, even if your display shows that you have full signal capacity, texts don’t send out and calls don’t go through. So in the event of an emergency or disasters, where needs can change every hour, how does one communicate?” Team leader Conrado Saceda ponders. Saceda is the Chief of Operations of The Peace & Conflict Journalism Network (PECOJON), which focuses on issuing communications during emergencies. Because of his team’s cumulative experience in the field, they understood the value of two-way radios in facilitating contact when other systems have failed. He called on HAM Radio Cebu Inc, an amateur radio group specializing in emergency two-way-radio communication.
Saceda and his team assembled an emergency communications module that separates itself from regular two-way radio training with its emphasis on understanding what makes quality information. Apart from technical understanding of how the radios work and what it takes to fix them, they highlight the need to assess and understand what is important for aid-givers to know before they come to the island. They established protocols that were unique to the island, especially in its simplicity, designed to be understood by anyone as young as nine years old. “We simplified the instructions, and converted technical terms to layman’s terms so they could grasp the concepts much more easily,” says Saceda. These terms were then translated into both Filipino and Waray, with the help of community representatives, for further ease of communication.
Community members were first trained with the basic information of what a two-way radio is, what its limitations are, and the regulations attached to its usage. Once the baseline technical knowledge was established, the community was then trained in response mechanisms, DRRM law, assessing needs of vulnerable sectors, and protection policies.
The community was then taught how to create or repair two-way radio components in the event that disaster events take down antennas. “The antenna extends the range of a small portable radio’s ability to communicate at low power,” explains Saceda. He underscores the value of antennas in the use of base radios, or wireless communications stations normally positioned at fixed locations. “In terms of base radios, it’s the antenna that translates voice to signals. Without the antenna, communication would be entirely impossible. So having these antennas is important to amplify the all the units’ reach for the communities to remain in contact.”
Saceda explains that it was integral for their team to consult the community regarding what materials were available locally, and using that information, developed a homebrew antenna that could be constructed using household materials like PVC pipes and household electrical wires. It was built to withstand strong winds, and upon testing, the team found that it could initiate a farther reach than available commercial antennas.
Saceda says, “We’re capacitating the community to restore their communications systems and be able to make use of them in times of disasters. We’re helping them establish a protocol so that they can better respond to emergencies and cope in times of emergency through communication.”
COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT AND IMPACT
Because the innovation was largely technical and educational, the community’s involvement was their active participation. Gapati says a key part of the project’s success was the willingness of the community to learn and to put their knowledge to practical use. “What was important was that before they trained us. They taught us how to use and maintain the equipment. They taught us how to communicate effectively. These radios are meant for emergencies and should only be used in emergency situations. If we use it for everyday communication with Guiuan, it’s possible for us to cloud the transmissions when other emergency communications are trying to get through. Or worse, for whoever we’re getting in touch with to be less responsive, because they’re used to us making contact for non-urgent matters,” Gapati explains.
Gapati also says that having the system in place has strengthened their ties as the barangay LGU with the DRRM office of the municipality, enabling them to be fully disaster-ready. He says, “Because we now have a direct line to the MDRRMO, it’s easier for us to acquire reliable information that our people can trust. We’re given warnings way in advance, and once we relay that information to the community—say for instance that forced evacuation is necessary—they know it’s trustworthy communication, and not something we just pulled off social media.” Saceda says that the quality of communication with mainland resources has improved. “Before, someone from the mainland would have to come over and assess the needs of the community, and then go back, acquire those supplies and send them out. So much time and effort is wasted.” He explains, ”In this manner, they’re able to provide important information—how many homes were destroyed, how many people are without food and water, what immediate and life savings needs are—to which Guiuan is able to respond more efficiently.”
Fifty-six year-old Corazon Abrahano, a person with disability, has lived in Homonhon all her life. She received training after Yolanda, and became a natural fit for the project. She learned to assemble the first prototype of the homebrew antenna, and is currently well versed in putting together the refined version. She says she feels empowered, knowing that she can monitor the news herself through the MDRRMO’s communications, and that she can check in with Guiuan when necessary. “If we didn’t have this radio, I wouldn’t know what would happen to me. We used to be at the mercy of the weather, and we didn’t know that we could prepare so much earlier.”
Gapati adds that there is a sense of peace and ease within the community because of the innovation. “Since having the system, the community has visibly relaxed because contact is easy. We can ask for help when we need it, and fishermen who aren’t able to make their way back to Guiuan because of high waters can let their families know that they are safe and will be coming home soon.”
Saceda’s team is currently in the process of fundraising for the next phase of training, focusing on the fisher folk community and the integration of youth participation. They would also like to expand the reach of the system and test with other Geographically Isolated and Disadvantaged Areas (GIDA) though the support of LGU, government agencies and private sectors