Sixty three members of the UK International Search and Rescue Team were deployed to Japan immediately after returning from helping support NZ USAR teams in Christchurch following that city’s major earthquake in February. The situation they encountered in Japan, in the area around the port of Ofunato, was chaotic. The BGAN mobile satellite broadband terminal they had brought with them, loaned to them by Excelerate Technology, became critical to their search and rescue activities and their command communications.
‘Where we were the mobile phone network wasn’t functioning and the landline infrastructure was severely affected. So it enabled us to communicate with the rest of the world,’ says Paul Burnham, Group Commander for emergency response for West Midlands Fire Service and leader of red team in the West Midlands UK International Search and Rescue group. ‘We could talk back to the UK and the UK government. It enabled us to communicate with the rest of the world.’
Communicating back to base wasn’t the only benefit, however. Having mobile satellite broadband communications enabled the group to improve the effectiveness of their search and rescue activities: ‘We could go on the internet and download maps and imagery, weather forecasts and situational information which enabled us to prepare comprehensive search patterns and brief crews. West Midlands Fire Service sent twelve personnel. Six of our team were part of the search and rescue team, and six provided the command and control team, using the satellite broadband.
‘The satellite broadband also enabled us to talk to our American colleagues – we had a joint evacuation plan because of the problems at the Fukushima nuclear plant, in case the situation deteriorated. So we were using it for all types of communications.
‘Ordinarily we use our own BGAN terminal, but we had only just returned from the earthquake in Christchurch New Zealand – I had been there for three weeks – and the dish was still in transit back to the UK. Martin Saunders (co-founder and Sales Director) from Excelerate Technology very kindly phoned and offered us the use of another BGAN dish.’
David Savage, fellow co-founder and CEO of Excelerate Technology, said: ‘The last few years have seen a lot of our growth being spawned on the back of major catastrophes, originating with 9/11 and closer to home 7/7. Since then there have been environmental disasters, particularly the bush fires, followed by flooding, in Australia, the earthquake in New Zealand, and the Tsunami in Japan.
‘All these events demonstrate, in the worst possible way, how fallible the terrestrial and public infrastructure can be and how important it is to have alternative solutions that allow various countries’ emergency services to manage these events more effectively, with the absolute priority being to minimise loss of life. We are very proud of the difference our solutions are making in achieving this important objective and we are very glad we were able to assist and support a very valuable client in an extremely critical mission.
Asked to comment on the role of satellite broadband in international Search and Rescue operations, Paul Burnham commented: ‘It’s a capability that is imperative for us as a team, because we never know where we are going to or what we will be tasked with.’