FIRST Response Radio - Life Saving Information in Disaster

A big thank you to Mike Adams, the INTL Coordinator, for sharing his experiences with FrontlineSMS and further schooling us on how radio can facilitate in saving lives!  In times of disaster radio not only saves lives, it can also bring hope and critical information to the affected community. When the 2004 tsunami struck Banda Aceh, Indonesia, all the radio and TV stations went off air. Similarly, during the 2005 South Asian earthquake, the only radio station near the epicentre lost its tower and went off air. In times like these, people are in desperate need of news and information on how to get to safety and how to survive. However, the unfortunate trend seen recently is that when radio is so important, many times it goes off the air and does not come back until well after the emergency is over.

First Response Radio (FRR) is a network of radio broadcasters, NGOs and Government partners and our goal is to deliver critical information, via radio,  to affected communities in the immediate aftermath of disasters. Since time is critical, FRR trains their local teams in disaster prone countries to get their on air within 72 hours of a disaster. The main tool is that FRR uses a special 'Radio in a Suitcase' kit. This kit has a studio in one case and an FM  transmitter in another which will reach up to 15 to 20kM from the station.

FRR Photo 1
FRR Photo 1

Radio needs to be a two-way tool as we want the community to talk back to us , sharing their stories, telling what kinds of information and relief they need. This two way process empowers the community and holds the relief community accountable.

When the mobile networks are still up, one of the ways that FRR makes this feedback process possible is by giving out a mobile number over our radio broadcasts for voice calls and SMS messages. When the Bihar floods struck in Northern India in 2008 FRR began broadcasting over SW radio and the moment that the announcer gave out the mobile phone number people started calling, people were contacting the station to either share their story about what had happened to them, or telling us what kind of information they needed most. It was common that the calls and texts that came in, provided the theme or topic for the next days' show. Giving people a voice was essential as some lower caste people were being overlooked and this information allowed the radio station to be an advocate for them and make their voice heard.

While many  of the illiterate people preferred to call, there was also a large part of the community that sent SMS text messages as well. Firoz, our Indian team leader began writing all these numbers down in a notebook, and by the end of the six week emergency response he had received over 1800 calls and texts.

FRR Photo 2
FRR Photo 2

Even at our 'field trial' events, we will use the mobile phone to ask for response from the community. In the Philippines, Mark our veteran announcer realized we needed to give out a number thus he sharing his own number on the air. That evening we had a number of SMS replies confirming where people could hear the station and how far our coverage reached… all on Mark’s phone.  Manila, Philippines, has been called the “Texting Capital of the World” as they send more SMS text messages in a day than any other city, showing that this is a suitable medium to communicate with the population when disaster strikes as well.

After these experiences we thought, “surely there has to be a better way to keep track of incoming SMS messages than writing them into a book or keeping them on Mark’s phone?” I had heard about FrontlineSMS through the CDAC Network before, but had never set it up or run it myself.  All our kits have a spare laptop that is networked to the main “on air” machine and in January, the BBC Media Action loaded Frontline SMS onto the kit that we provided for Nepal - there, I saw how easy it was to read and save messages, set up address books, and use all the other handy features.

When we took our next kit out to Sumatra, Indonesia, I decided we would load the software and hardware on the extra laptop and give it a proper test during our 3 day “Field Exercise” out near Krakatau volcano.  The kind folks at FrontlineSMS offered to provide a modem for us … but I decided to see how easy it was to buy them in Jakarta.  We found a modem easily in Jakarta and added money onto the SIM.  Our disaster response radio operation is normally very simple and we decided we did not need the special “Radio Version” but just loaded the standard software.  In very little time we had it all running and were sending out test messages to the Indonesian team.  When we got replies from the team it was easy to save them in the address book and add them to a special group.   Then if I wanted a message to go out to just team members and not the public it was ready to go.  We might also consider adding the public into different groups according to location in case we had location specific information.

FRR Photo 3
FRR Photo 3

During the field trial we gave out our mobile number over the radio and began receiving SMS messages right onto the laptop.  Once the test event was all done we then had a record of all the messages that came in and this will help us measure and evaluate the kind of feedback we get and what the community is saying about our service.  Our only issue was that team members often removed the USB Modem so they could upload content to the laptop since there weren’t many USB ports.  When the modem was plugged back in it didn’t default to FrontlineSMS.  We can sort this out by adding a USB port hub next time.

FIRST Response Radio was so pleased with this second demonstration of Frontline SMS on the “Radio in a Suitcase” kits that we have decided to include it on ALL future kits as “standard equipment”.  It is much easier to set it up before it even leaves the factory and it will be ready to give a voice to the public as soon as it hits the ground.

In times of disaster, local FM radio and SMS messaging are two of the most robust forms of communication.   What we have learned in FIRST Response Radio is that together they are a very powerful combination and we look forward to adding Frontline SMS software to our next kit when we build a new team in the Philippines later this year.

Thanks to the kind donors who keep FrontlineSMS going – we appreciate all they have been able to do for us.

Mike Adams, INTL Coordinator, FIRST Response Radio  o/