Flooding in the Philippines: A Look at SMART’s Disaster Response Activities

On Monday, August 6th,  Tropical Storm Haiku hit the Philippines, exacerbating precipitation from the south-west monsoon rains and causing mass flooding affecting 850,000 people and displacing more than 250,000. This storm follows Typhoon Saola which hit in late July.

Since then, the capital Manila and northern parts of the country have been inundated by 9 days of torrential rains and extreme flooding from Monday. Approximately 80% of the capital is now under water. Slum dwellers and the poor have been particularly affected by the threat of landslides, and agricultural production has been negatively impacted. Financial Markets re-opened yesterday, however schools and businesses remain closed, and emergency response agencies are working to evacuate residents and provide essential supplies.

The Philippines experiences an average of 20 typhoons of varying severity on an annual basis. The mobile network, and the role of mobile operators within the country are becoming increasingly critical to facilitating effective response and supporting affected populations.

SMART Communications Inc. has been working on maximising their communications infrastructure and human resources for disaster response since 1998, and they have initiated emergency preparedness and disaster response protocols in the wake of the floods. The following activities have been implemented thus far:

  • Set-up of free call stations called “Libreng Tawag” in evacuation centres, with access to charging facilities and internet provision, with deployment of SMART staff to support. As of yesterday, 12 Libreng Tawag centres had been set up, with more rolling out.
  • A free top-up facility for those with a zero balance: *SOS provides customers with 3 SMS messages and airtime
  • On-line advisory board alerting customers and emergency responders to any network interruptions, and the resulting restoration activities
  • SMART person finder to assist customers in locating loved ones
  • SMART employees working with local government authorities to distribute essential aid in flood-affected areas
  • Opening of an SMS channel to receive donations for the Red Cross
  • Regular updates and guidance on their social media channels (both Facebook and Twitter: @Smartcares)

SMART’s network remains strong  with the exception of some isolated  3G problems and power outages, however voice and text are still working, and SMART is providing real-time updates and swift deployment of network engineers to address any technical and network management challenges (primarily a 6 hour outage in one region). SMART also participates in a programme called Noah’s Ark which partners with local government and the Corporate Network for Disaster Response. This programme works with disaster-prone communities on evacuation and warning drills to improve preparedness and community-based resilience.

Internally, SMART has developed a strong  and practical organisational structure and procedures to enable them to act quickly in disasters:

  • Maintaining a closed Facebook group for employees with emergency contacts for rescue and relief among employees are coordinated
  • Regular email and SMS advisories
  • Employee Facebook accounts that act as a work platform interfacing with the public to provide information to a wide audience
  • Regular communication with local government units through Smart’s on-the-ground network of sales, field engineers and community care personnel.

In my correspondence with SMART yesterday, The Head of Public Affairs, Ramon Isberto commented that “the floods we are currently experiencing has been posing some extraordinary challenges for us.” Ramon and several other SMART employees joined the GSMA Disaster Response Working Group in Shanghai at MAE to share some of their strategies and challenges with the wider mobile and humanitarian community. Core to their activities are preparedness and strong community-based engagement and coordination with relevant Government authorities.

Despite the obvious challenges they face, SMART’s activities are an excellent example of leadership in disaster response within the mobile industry, and a call to action for other operators to prioritise preparedness and coordination in advance of crises.

Photo: SMART Communications Inc.

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