The value of broadcast radio in an emergency
“It was a kind of silence that is deafening — the radio
broke through it, somehow. To hear the music and another voice, in the middle
of the night … made me able to hang in there for one more night …” a resident
of Tacloban, Philippines, said after Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful
tropical cyclones ever recorded.
In the aftermath of the disaster, which killed over 7000 people, left millions of people without homes and destroyed major areas of agriculture, the impact of radio could not be understated.
First invented in 1895, radio — one of the first forms of mass communications — continues to play an important role in today’s increasingly digital society.
“In times of emergency and disasters, radio broadcasting is one of the most powerful and effective ways of delivering early warnings and alerting the general public by broadcasting before the disaster occurs so people can evacuate to safe places and save their lives,” said Mijke Hertoghs, Head of ITU’s Environment and Emergency Telecommunications Division.
In the initial hours in the aftermath of a disaster, people need to be informed so that they understand what is happening and assess how they, their families and friends can receive support.
At the beginning of 2020, radio played a key role in the Australian Bushfire response, helping responders to keep local populations up‑to-date and coordinate and execute evacuation plans.
“Our standard advice is that in an emergency, people should make sure they’ve got a transistor radio with fresh batteries because the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, our national broadcaster, also has an emergency broadcasting role. Throughout the bushfires, they’ve been broadcasting regularly information about where bushfires are, where the affected areas are.
They’ve been passing on information from the State’s fire agencies, advising people as to when they should leave or whether it’s too late to leave, those kinds of things,” Paul Fletcher, Australia’s Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts told ITU in an interview (listen to the podcast featuring a range of voices on emergency telecommunications).
Broadcasting appropriate information and advice through services such as radio is particularly useful when physical access to an area is difficult. But these kinds of services can also help people cope with the disaster until help arrives onsite.
One such service is First Response Radio (FRR), whose mission is to put emergency radio broadcasts on the air within 72 hours of a disaster. Teams are located in four major hubs throughout South‑East Asia — the Philippines, Indonesia, India and Pakistan — to ensure rapid response.
The organization trains local teams — both professional and amateur — to use simple broadcasting equipment over a five‑day training programme. The equipment is designed to fit into a suitcase and weighs just 23 kg, so it can easily fit into the hold luggage of an international flight.
“There is no international team coming from London. The local team has the equipment; they’ve been trained how to use it; they decide when they need to deploy. And that’s what makes it possible for them to get into the field and on the air in 72 hours: because they’re local.
Locally empowered to speak the local language, ready to deploy according to local conditions and the local disasters,” Mike Adams, FRR International Coordinator, told ITU. “We take people with no radio background and within a couple of days, they’re making radio shows and doing live interviews.”
FRR teams have responded to 32 disasters in the last 15 years, including major flooding in India in 2008, Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, and the 2015 Nepal earthquake.
Diversity of content
Working with government and non‑government organization (NGO) responders on the ground, the teams disseminate disaster‑relief information to the local populations — water and food distribution points, sanitation and hygiene tips, housing information — but blend it with a mix of entertainment.
“In times of emergency and disasters, radio broadcasting is one of the most powerful and effective ways of delivering early warnings and alerting the general public by broadcasting before the disaster occurs so people can evacuate to safe places and save their lives,” said Mijke Hertoghs, Head of ITU’s Environment and Emergency Telecommunications Division. “We’re serving the community that is affected by the disaster, and that changes the focus of the content,” Adams said.
During the response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the FRR radio teams provided a blend of information and comfort to those affected by the disaster.
“We were the first voice, and it built a really solid relationship with the community and provided not just information about the response, but just provided a friend like a voice that was always there… Research showed later, the fact that people tuned into the radio station helped them heal from the trauma and the stress and all the mental health challenges of that disaster.”
ITU supports Member States in preparing them to become more resilient to disaster by ensuring the rational, equitable, efficient and economical use of the radio‑frequency spectrum for all phases of a disaster, from preparedness to recovery, and by assisting them with the development and implementation of national emergency telecommunication plans, including spectrum management for land and space.
“Every country has a system of licensing radio stations, and we cannot ignore that. We have to work within this ITU established structure globally,” said Adams.
ITU’s Radio communication Study Groups carry out studies related to the continuing development of radio communication systems used in disaster mitigation/relief operations. The ITU Radio communication Sector (ITU–R) is also invited to pursue studies on the further identification of suitable frequency bands that could be used on a global/ regional basis for public protection and disaster relief (PPDR), as well as on facilitating cross‑border circulation of equipment intended for use in emergency and disaster relief situations — the second of these tasks being reinforced by the Tampere Convention on the provision of telecommunication resources for disaster mitigation and relief operations.
The ITU Telecommunication Development Sector (ITU–D) has issued guidelines for national emergency telecommunications plans (see the guide) to help national authorities and policymakers to develop a clear and flexible framework to ensure vital telecommunication networks and services remain online during emergencies or in the aftermath of disasters.
As part of ITU’s work on emergency telecommunications, ITU produces a series of recommendations, manuals, reports, among other products, which highlight the need to enhance preparedness measures to enable the use of reliable and resilient information and communication technology (ICT) networks, platforms and services, such as radio broadcasting for disaster management.