Addressable satellite radio sets were found to be the best alerting technology of the community disaster warning pilot project conducted by LIRNEasia and Sarvodaya. Java enabled mobile phones which has a wake up siren came next. The GSM based remote alarm device developed locally by Dialog Telekom, MicroImage and University of Moratuwa followed closely. It has both light and siren.
Findings of this project on learning how information-communication technologies and community based training can help in tsunami and other disaster situations had been discussed by community leaders and international experts at a workshop on "Sharing Knowledge on Disaster Warning with a Focus on Community-Based Last-Mile Warning Systems" at the Sarvodaya Headquarters in Moratuwa recently. Difficulties had been experienced in communicating disaster warning to villages when mobile and fixed CDMA telecom networks were not functioning in conflict conditions. Also, the importance of not leaving newspapers on top of sensitive electronic equipment which can overheat and shutdown had been noted. The VSAT based warning system had not run well in the tests.
"This is proto-type technology, using chosen groups to alert particular communities in particular villages," explained Prof. Rohan Samarajiva, Executive Director, LIRNEasia, at the press conference held on Friday at the Institute for Construction Training and Development (ICTAD).
"We are not into the mass market. This is a community leader's programme and not a home product." The cost consideration differed from that of a home-based product, he said. "When the cost factor is considered, java-enabled mobile phones are the best," he said. The emphasis of the project had been on community involvement with an accent on contingency planning including evacuation preparedness. This could avoid panicking, stampedes, heart-attacks and pre-mature child births likely in such a situation, Prof. Samarajiva said.
The project simulations had been carried out in 32 villages with various kinds of communications equipment providing features such as early warning wake-up, addressability and provisions of information in three languages (English, Sinhala and Tamil). The field testing actively engaged the 32 villages in assessing and reporting on the effectiveness of the system and equipment being employed. A number of the key hardware and software components were designed and developed in Sri Lanka specifically for the project. Panama, Trincomalee, Moratumulla, Moratuwa, Modera, Kalutara were some of the filed tested areas. Temple "Ghantars" and mosque bells had been used as alarms.
An advanced Sarvodaya village, Mirissa, designated as a control village and not given any equipment had managed to respond extremely quickly to the simulated warning by co-ordinating with another village, which LIRNEasia saw as an example of organization and determination triumphing technology.
The alerting technology needs a power supply independent of the main supply, regardless of weather conditions and text language support and audio-language to transmit the warning message, said Prof. Peter Anderson, Simon Frazer University, Vancouver, Canada, in his presentation.
If less time is taken in receiving, verifying and sending the warning to communities by the Sarvodaya Hazard Information Hub, then extra time will be available to people to evacuate into a safer area, he said. "Tsunami warning capabilities in the Indian Ocean are improving. How to get the message out to the remote areas is the challenge in Sri Lanka, throughout the region and in the world."
"Alerting machines must be on all the time and used on a daily basis," said Nuwan Waidyanatha, LIRNEasia. Rahul Kumar, Chief Technical Officer at the World Space Channel available at Sarvodaya, explained the dissemination of communications in transmitting voice records from Bangalore, converting to a web file in Singapore and downcasting via satellite. Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne, Executive Director, Sarvodaya, spoke of understanding community dynamics and social and cultural aspects.
The objective was not to declare a winner among the technologies, but to find out how they could be improved to perform reliably in the difficult conditions of Sri Lankan villages. In disaster warning, great emphasis is placed on redundancy and multiple pathways, so more than one technology will be used in project implementation. The findings off field trails are now in the hands of developers who are making improvements to the equipment so that they will perform better in Sri Lanka and in other countries interested in these applications.
Conceptualised in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed the lives of one out of 500 local citizens, the project partnership of LIRNEasia and Sarvodaya had the shared objective of evaluating the suitability of ICT in the last mile of a national disaster warning system for Sri Lanka and its possible extension to other developing countries. International Development Research Centre of Canada had funded the project launched in January 2006. Part of the process had included training young people from Sarvodaya Shantisena as trainers. The project had been unable to retain all the trainers who trained last March establishing a 24/7 helpdesk function at the Sarvodaya Community Disaster Management Center.
Sarvodaya and LIRNEasia intend to work with their multiple partners to further analyze the findings of the pilot project research and implement them in a broad program to make 1,000 Grama Swarajya villages in the Sarvodaya Movement exemplars of disaster resilience.