Training Telecommunications First Responders

The tandem natural disasters in Myanmar and China raise again the terrible complexity of dealing with large scale catastrophes and, as the case of Myanmar so clearly demonstrates, the importance of getting relief experts on the ground early. For that reason I want to highlight a training program, run by the World Food Programme and supported by the Vodafone Group Foundation and the UN Foundation, for telecommunications “first responders” who provide emergency communications to the entire relief community during humanitarian disasters.

Twenty hand-picked information and communications team (ICT) leaders graduated last last month from the two-week program, designed to standardize best practices throughout the community. “Best practices” probably sounds to most like an empty phrase used by those far removed from the action. But, when you’ve just been deployed to a foreign country that has had its infrastructure destroyed by disaster and where there are few points of reference, it is an absolute necessity.

Recent trainee Torbjorn Soderberg blogs on his experiences after the jump. John Bursa, a graduate of the 2007 training program and a Regional Telecommunications Officer for the UN World Food Programme (WFP) recently recorded the podcast below in Yangon, Myanmar, on efforts to reconnect communications and communities in the aftermath of the deadly Cyclone Nagris.


Guest Post:Recent Trainee Torbjorn Soderberg

From 12-23 May, Torbjorn Soderberg, a member of the World Food Programme’s Fast Information Technology and Telecommunications Emergency and Support Team (FITTEST), traveled to Pisa, Italy, for an intensive two-week training session designed to to improve cooperation and standardise ICT best practices in disaster response throughout the humanitarian community. The training was organized by the World Food Programme, with support from the United Nations Foundation-Vodafone Group Foundation Technology Partnership.

[PART 1 OF 2]

By Torbjorn Soderberg

ICT Emergency Preparedness and Response Management Training, Pisa


Arriving in Pisa, Italy for the World Food Programme’s training programme for IT Emergency Managers it hit me – this was not the field! Instead, the premises at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna were a pleasant garden, full of leaves and pine trees, with a stone walkway.

But I quickly realized that the training would not be a seminar where I could sit back and relax – it would be hard studying, 12 hour days, and even emergency scenarios that would have to be navigated to pass the training.

After several days of classroom exercises and some practical exercises, an emergency scenario was built up for us – the country of ‘Midtonia’ had just been struck by an earthquake that had killed many people, and a militia had taken advantage of the opportunity to level an attack, creating hundreds of thousands of IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). It was time to put the skills we’d honed to practice!

The trainers played the role of Midtonia government officials and other agencies responding to the crisis. It was our task to extract as much information as possible in order to quickly provide an assessment and a budget for our ICT Emergency initiative to help the people of Midtonia. The trainers made sure our job wasn’t easy. Some of the ‘Midtonia’ officials, for example, turned out to be semi-corrupt.

The ‘real life’ exercises didn’t end there. The weekend came, and a 4×4 off road driving session ensued in the lush mountains of Tuscany. I have been driving offroad for years, but I enjoyed networking with my fellow classmates, many of whom come from other UN agencies or NGOs, and are likely to bump into each other in the field at a later stage.

[PART 2 OF 2]

Dodging bullets and managing stress

By Torbjorn Soderberg


Toward the end of the two week, when we began preparing for the dangers we face in the field, the training became most surreal. We once again departed from picturesque Pisa, and traveled to the Folgore campgrounds – the airborne brigade’s training facility. Throughout the day we were shot at (with rubber bullets), exposed to (deactivated) mines, and even held in a mock hostage-taking situation for several hours, under the influence of both physical and psychological pressure.

I managed to avoid all of the rubber bullets in the ambush exercise, but other participants took as many as 20 hits and looked like leopards with all the paint! The hostage-taking was as realistic it could get without breaking bones or creating permanent injuries to the participants. My legs are still sore, and I can recall the smell of the hood they threw over my head.

Appropriately, our final day focused on stress management training. We went through not only how to tackle our own stress, but also how to identify and address high levels of stress of our team members. We went back through some of the previous days’ exercises to make the points of the session.

I must admit, I had thought these two weeks in Pisa – far from the difficulties and dangers of the field – was going to be “just another training.”; But oh was I wrong. The reality of the training combined with the great venue and trainers made it into an important and enjoyable learning experience. And I enjoyed meeting and connecting with staff from other UN agencies and groups that I am likely to be in contact with again when working in the field. It makes things a lot easier when you’ve already met.

Thanks to WFP, the United Nations Foundation, the Vodafone Foundation and Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Pisa for one of the best training sessions I have ever attended.

A former Production Engineer for Ericsson AB, based in Sweden, Soderberg joined the WFP’s ICT team after being seconded to the corporate humanitarian initiative Ericsson Response, a stand by partner of WFP. As a member of the WFP’s FITTEST team, he deploys at a moment’s notice to establish communications systems in emergencies. He has worked on projects in Sri Lanka (following the tsunami), Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia, to mention a few.