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#mediadev

Broadcasting critical info hours after disaster strikes

When disasters such as the Nepal earthquake hit, communications are often cut and radio and TV stations off air. First Response Radio aims to get on air within 72 hours of a calamity with its 'station in a suitcase.'

Destruction on the border of Nepalese districts Dolakha and Sindhupalchok after earthquake hit.

Destruction on the border of Nepalese districts Dolakha and Sindhupalchok after the 2015 earthquake.

After the devastating earthquake in Nepal, First Response Radio moved in and launched in the northern district of Rasuwa, where the disaster knocked radio stations off the air. Programming on Radio Rasuwa has included news from government officials and NGOs as well as advice on how to access to water, shelter, food and healthcare.

The idea for First Response Radio was first put into practice during the 2004 Asian tsunami by the organization, Health Communication Resources (HCR). In 2012, First Response Radio became independent.

#mediadev spoke to Mike Adams, international coordinator for First Response Radio, about why radio is so important in a disaster, flying in a radio station as checked-luggage and how essential training is before a disaster hits.

#mediadev: Where was your first radio station launched?

Mike Adams: Our story starts about four years before our first deployment when our HCR international team first floated the idea of offering an emergency radio station to developing countries following major disasters.

But it was the 2004 Asian Tsunami that really mobilized us. We decided that if we didn't attempt to launch the project at that time, we never would. Fortunately, we had an Asian partner on the ground who told us that the government would grant us a temporary FM license in the Banda Aceh area.

Days later, a UK technology company donated a transmitter. We then flew to Singapore to buy some studio equipment and within a couple of weeks were in Indonesia erecting the transmitter. It was only when we got there that we realized getting and setting up the equipment was the easy part. Even when we had the studio ready and the transmitter and antenna ready, we still needed announcers who could provide useful and critical information. That took another week. But that first experience reminded me how powerful radio really can be.

What did that experience teach you?

As our initial deployment took some time to arrange, we made it our future goal to be on air within 72 hours after a disaster. We also decided we shouldn't rely on good luck and fortunate circumstances to ensure we had the right equipment. We had to make sure we had the right equipment in place even before we needed it.

What we have now is a radio station in a suitcase, or three suitcases, to be exact. One contains a studio, the second has an FM transmitter and a third contains an antenna system and cables. With just these three bags and a generator, we can put a station on the air. Each suitcase weighs less than 20 kilos so we can check them in as regular luggage on an airplane.

The other part of the challenge was to train people long before the next disaster comes along and to work with governments to create a path for transmitter licensing in emergency situations. Also, our equipment is modular so if a project doesn't need the transmitter, we can deploy just the studio.

Do you have equipment on standby in different countries?

Since we launched, we've responded to 17 disasters in four different countries. We've conducted around ten major training events where we've delivered equipment and trained teams in how to use it.

We have eight to ten suitcase radio kits scattered around South and Southeast Asia and each time we deliver new equipment, we provide classroom training to a team and conduct a three-day field exercise. It's almost like a military-style exercise and held under very realistic conditions. After that, the teams then have both the skills and confidence to respond to the next disaster.

Have there been countries where it has been difficult to get a broadcast license quickly?

In India, we have yet to receive an FM license, so while we still send in our equipment following a disaster and create programming on the ground with our suitcase studio, we will often send the signal out of the country via the Internet and beam it back into India via shortwave. An example of this was the 2008 floods in Bihar state, which left around three million people homeless. We were able to provide shortwave coverage to the entire state. We’re continuing to work with the Indian government to try to get FM licenses for the aftermath of a disaster.

First Response Radio is probably best known for its work following the super typhoon that hit Tacloban in the Philippines two years ago. What difference did you make on the ground there?

That was definitely our best deployment to date. One UN official said this was the success story that people will talk about until the next major disaster. How do we know it worked? Well, one of the UN women’s groups running maternal clinics wasn’t seeing many women and children come in to the clinics until nurses began talking about the services on First Response Radio. The following day, the number of women who showed up had tripled and then it reached record numbers.

The Philippine government said one of its key priorities was to help people access water and shelter, so we worked with NGOs who were providing clean, safe water to communities. We broadcast key messages about how to access, transport and store water safely. Our team even created a water song that included key tips about water hygiene.

Nearly two million people were left homeless after the typhoon. Many residents were confused because of new restrictions on rebuilding close to the sea. So, together with NGOs, we were able to broadcast information to help people access funds and give other support in order to rebuild their homes. But the tragedy left the local population really traumatized, and it was vital to provide more than just information. So in the evenings, we put on entertainment shows which the community really valued. They described how these shows, with their messages of hope and encouragement, helped restore their faith in the future.

Do you plan to scale the project up further?

We certainly want to launch First Response Radio in other countries. We’ve developed strategies to help us achieve this in the most disaster-prone countries. We have yet to launch teams in Africa or Latin America but would like to find partners in these regions. In the future, we hope that it will be routine for us to provide this service of life-saving service following every major disaster.