Tech on Disaster's Frontlines

The group Telecoms Without Borders is bringing telecommunications and computer equipment and know-how to victims of natural disasters and war

At 3:30 a.m. on May 27, Oisin Walton, a French former ad executive, was up late doing some paperwork when he got a text message about an earthquake, measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale that had hit the Indonesian island of Java. Walton went to bed immediately, knowing that he would need to get some sleep because soon he would be on his way to the disaster.

By the next evening, after 13-and-a-half hours of flying and a one-and-a-half hour drive, he arrived at Yogyakarta, Indonesia, in the earthquake zone, lugging laptops, routers, and satellite equipment. Walton is on a swat team of Telecoms Without Borders.

There has been an explosion of such international do-gooder organizations, starting with Doctors Without Borders and proliferating to teachers, reporters, lawyers, engineers, and even grantmakers. Some foster economic development, and others, democracy.


  Like the doctors' group, the telecom team, more commonly known by its French name, Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF), is an emergency relief crew, a tech-support squad for the international-disaster set. It is staffed mostly by European networking experts who install essential communications for victims and aid workers in the immediate wake of earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, famine, and war.

The group's volunteers are recent graduates schooled in telecom and computer networking, or part-time workers whose jobs permit them to break away at a moment's notice. Marc Ricart, 34, a Spanish municipal engineer, took a leave from his job in the town of Llica d'Amunt in 2004 to take a job in Managua, Nicaragua. There, he met the local head of the TSF office and volunteered, serving in a tropical storm and mud-slide relief mission to Guatemala in 2005 and a flood-relief mission to Bolivia last February.

TSF traces its roots to a homegrown, general disaster-relief organization, Solidarité Pyrénéenne, started by friends who grew up near Pau, France, TSF's current headquarters close to the Spanish border. TSF co-founders Jean-François Casenave, 51, and Monique Lanne-Petit, 40, who now head the organization, conducted humanitarian missions during vacations from their jobs at, respectively, the French Telecommunications Ministry and a British food-services company.


  In 1991, they flew to Iraq during the Gulf War, sold to the relief agencies there some donated clothing they had gathered in Pau, and bought cheese with the money for delivery to Kurdish refugees in Yakmal near the border of Turkey.

On that first mission to Iraq, says Casenave, "a victim gave us a piece of paper from inside his shoe with a phone number and asked us to call his family to tell them their uncle is dead." In 1998, refugees from Kosovo streaming toward the border of Albania handed the French volunteers similar slips of paper, and a week later, after calls had been made, they saw their families coming in with cars from Germany, Italy, France, and the U.S. to help.

TSF was born. "If you were a doctor or a food worker, you could make a contribution to humanitarian action," Casenave says. "Now, if you work in telecom and computers, you can also make a humanitarian contribution."


  With 15 salaried workers, 35 volunteers, and a budget of about $950,000, the group supplies phone contact for victims and Internet, fax, and phone services for rescue agencies to coordinate work. Funding comes from organizations such as London satellite company Inmarsat; Vodafone Group Foundation, the charitable organization of the U.K.-based telecom Vodafone (VOD); and most recently, the U.N. Foundation.

While the U.N. and other major rescue groups have their own tech equipment and crews, they say TSF fills a gap in the first weeks of an emergency. TSF arrives faster with gear that's more expensive but also more portable.

In Yogyakarta, TSF staffer Walton, 26, and his three-person team set up an entire communications center a half-hour, serving 110 emergency workers. State-of-the-art satellite terminals, each equipped with 10 phone lines, 10 data lines, videoconferencing, and a Wi-Fi cloud, take just 10 minutes to install.


  TSF is branching out beyond emergencies, often staying at or returning to hot spots to build more permanent facilities. TSF staffer Benoît Chabrier, 25, a recent graduate of the University of Toulouse, is helping set up 12 sites in isolated border regions of Niger. Last year, during the famine, scores of children died during the month it took for help requests to reach authorities. With the new Internet links, locals will be able to send cries for aid in seconds.

Says Chabrier, "After four years of studying technology, technology, technology in school, I knew how a computer worked, but I didn't know what to do with the computer. Now I have found a social issue to put this computer to use."

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