Satellite connectivity powers volcano relief effort

Inmarsat satellite communications supported relief efforts during a three-month evacuation of over 60,000 people living near an erupting volcano in the Philippines.

Reliable connectivity helped the government coordinate moving people to safety and monitor over 70 evacuation centres to ensure crucial aid and supplies were maintained as the situation continued.

The crisis was a test for a satellite connectivity project which aims to reduce the impact of natural disasters in the Philippines.  Under the UK Space Agency’s five-year International Partnership Programme (IPP), Inmarsat is working with the Philippine government and a consortium of partners to transform disaster response.

Lava explosions

Increased activity in the Mount Mayon volcano at the end of January prompted the evacuation of people living within six kilometres of the permanent danger zone around the peak. This was increased further to cover six municipalities when the volcano spewed an ash column 6km high, with frequent lava explosions and volcanic earthquakes.

The Inmarsat project has seen satellite equipment prepositioned in five hazard-prone regions for quick deployment in the event of a disaster, and staff from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), which leads disaster relief response, have been trained to use the technology.

With poor terrestrial connectivity in the area, the government relied on Global Xpress to provide the high speed broadband needed for its 23 seat command centre from which they coordinated the response. The 1-metre GX terminal was deployed on the roof of a hospital in Legazpi City, where the chief doctor also served as incident commander.

Real-time awareness

“It is not intimidating to use,” said DSWD regional planning officer and technology unit head Joseph Teston, who managed the GX installation and oversaw its deployment. “We can make spot decisions based on real-time situational awareness from the ground. Information is key, and it guides us on what to do next.”

As part of the sustained relief efforts, GX also enabled evacuation centres to submit reports and make requests for supplies or assistance, which could quickly be acted on.

With some of the emergency centres being completely offline in isolated locations, DSWD teams routinely visited with mobile BGAN terminals so camp managers could stay in touch with the command centre.

Work programmes

Reliable connectivity also enabled the government to inform evacuees about initiatives including short-term work programmes, which encouraged people to stay put instead of risking going back to their homes and farms while the danger continued.

Eventually, volcanic activity subsided and everyone was able to return by the beginning of April.

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