Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the Philippines in 2013, killing 6300 people and wiping out entire towns. Cisco’s Tactical Operations team (TacOps) used networking equipment to connect first responders on the ground to the rest of the world, enabling them to provide essential resources like water, food, and medical care to survivors.
A look out the plane’s window revealed the chaos Typhoon Haiyan had inflicted on the Philippine shores. Survivors walked aimlessly up and down barren roads, surrounded by mountainous piles of debris and the remains of homes decimated by wind and water. Ronald Snyder, a TacOps engineer at Cisco’s San Jose, California campus, remembers how he felt as the team’s plane descended for the runway below.
“It’s saddening to see destruction on that scale,” he said. “I never imagined I would see something like that, but you have to know the purpose of you being there.”
The TacOps team and several Cisco employee volunteers with the Disaster Incident Response Team (DIRT) deployed to the Philippines in November 2013 to support the government’s disaster response after the typhoon wiped out cellular towers necessary for communication. Giving new meaning to the term rapid response, Ron’s team was on the ground within 4 days of the typhoon’s landfall. With specialized Emergency Communications Kits and a 2.4-meter GATR inflatable satellite dish, they provided a reliable link for Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and email access, connecting the organizations engaged in relief efforts.
“The Philippine army was using tactical radios and cell phones for their communications, with a very limited range,” Ron said. “They weren’t even calling, they were using text messages,” which aren’t as expedient for relaying urgent information. This communications gap crippled relief efforts, cutting off the connection between responders and resources in larger cities like Manila.
“We would pass by these villages along the highway and see that some people still hadn’t been reached by relief agencies,” Ron said. “Right then and there, you realize that communications can speed up some of the delivery of relief goods to those people.”
Cisco Tactical Operations established VoIP and data services at two locations in the Philippines: Guiuan and Borongan. Operations coordinators and engineers with TacOps and 2 DIRT volunteers set up command posts at each location that allowed 10 to 15 first responders to coordinate aid and report to the Philippines response headquarters in Manila. The technology not only connected previously unconnected first responders, but allowed survivors to reach loved ones they feared were missing.
“It’s more than just providing Internet or voice,” Ron said. “One phone call to one of the survivors is probably what a family is waiting for, and connecting just one survivor to their family makes a big difference to whoever is on the line.”
The TacOps team first deployed to New Orleans, Louisiana in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, bringing hundreds of employee volunteers and tons of networking equipment to the devastated U.S. Gulf Coast. Later, Cisco realized it had something vital to contribute to disaster relief efforts: emergency communications systems. The team is now comprised of 9 full-time engineers and operations coordinators who are supported by more than 300 DIRT volunteers in the United States, China, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Brazil. Since Katrina, the TacOps team has responded to 28 incidents around the world.
TacOps and DIRT members are trained in the U.S. National Incident Management System (NIMS), enabling them to communicate with first responders using the same terminology.
Some team members have previous experience in military situations, which made providing support for the military-centric response in the Philippines a much more efficient process. “That’s what sets our team apart, that we have that credibility,” said Sue-Lynn Hinson, Manager for TacOps .
Sue-Lynn emphasizes that this team does more than just set up networks when disasters strike; they show people the value of communications during their aftermath.
“It’s great that we can bring all of this advanced equipment to the disaster scene,” she added. “But we are also spreading the word and educating agencies and response organizations on how the technology can serve their needs in disaster response.”
In the Philippines, the technology was particularly helpful in Guiuan, where first responders and soldiers had been on their own for weeks, using their own limited supplies to provide relief to area residents.
“There were guys that had no connection, literally cut off,” Sue-Lynn said. “When they had Internet access, they were able to see reports and pictures of the damage from the typhoon for the first time and see their hometowns.”
Matt Altman, a network engineer for TacOps, notes that the experiences overseas are helping to both improve the program and impact the Philippine people to this day. The team left equipment for the Philippine Army, including Emergency Communications Kits, which were remotely managed once the TacOps deployment ended.
“We trained the communications group in the Army to use the same tools and provide the same help we did without us having to be there,” Matt said.
“One of our goals is to see TacOps expand outside of the U.S. to areas where we know disasters and will continue to happen,” Matt said. The Philippines is a prime example, and will be prepared for the next natural disaster because of the TacOps support after Typhoon Haiyan.
Sue-Lynn agrees, noting that every deployment is a chance to improve the program. “We learn something new with every deployment because every situation is different,” she said. “We talk about all the things that went right, all the things that went wrong, and what we can do better. We come up with new solutions because of that.”
After the Philippines deployment, TacOps added new technology solutions to its toolkit: Cisco Meraki access points and TacOps Rapid Response Kits. Both were used several months later at the Carlton Complex wildfire response in Washington state. The cloud-based access points create faster connections in the field while the kits can be powered by solar energy or other non-fossil fuel sources.