Following the catastrophic 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami in Indonesia, people were desperate for information to rebuild their lives: “Just tell us what is happening!” they urged.
We felt it was important to get a radio station on the air, but had never done this before in disaster conditions. First Response Radio (FRR) got its start in the aftermath of the tsunami. It took a month to get the radio station up and running in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. While that was a great achievement in difficult conditions, we didn’t think it was fast enough as we missed the whole Emergency Phase of the disaster. We subsequently made it our goal to set up a radio station within 72 hours of a disaster striking and start broadcasting critical information to the affected community.
FRR is not a company or an organization. It is a network of networks made up of radio broadcasters, NGOs, and government partners. In each country, it is also a network of responders.
Our strategy has improved dramatically since the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, and the approach of FRR now is to buy equipment, train teams, and practice in disaster prone countries such as the Philippines, India, and Indonesia before disaster strikes. The equipment is then left in the country, and the local team responds to the next disaster.
We refer to the equipment we leave as the “Suitcase Radio,” which is really three suitcases or bags that include: a complete studio, FM transmitter, and an antenna. Each case is less than 45 lbs and can be checked as luggage on any airline. If set up properly, this station can reach a radius of 12 mi or more. However, the real secret to our success is not the equipment, but rather the training we provide.
We combine radio, NGOs, and government staff into a team and lead a five-day training workshop where they learn to run a radio station in a disaster zone. The NGOs learn from the radio announcers and vice versa. While the training we have given to people has been important, the “magic” really happens in the three-day field trials that we conduct. This enables us to put things into practice in a disaster-prone area under realistic field conditions. Sometimes the next disaster even strikes during the training event! FRR spends more time and resources on capacity building as that is the key to a good response.
An independent research paper (1) showed how FRR broadcasts in 2013 helped members of the community to recover following Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) in the Philippines. In summary, the disaster radio (FRR) provided reliable information that decreased fears. Through an understanding of what was happening, community members developed a sense of control and the ability to adapt:
“If you know what is going on . . . it is much easier to do right.”
“You could get information on what was going on, how I could rebuild my house.”
“They told us . . . to get food . . . and they told us about roads . . . and so on.”
Hearing voices and music played over the radio reminded the survivors of normality and offered moments of rest from the fight for survival and recovery. Some participants expressed that the joyful music played influenced them so much that they could feel happiness, and endure:
“I think that the music also . . . it made me feel . . . like normal . . . for a while. To rest my brain.”
“It was a kind of silence that is deafening. And the radio broke through it, someway. The music and to hear another voice, in the middle of the night, that made me able to hang in there for one night more.”
Also following Typhoon Haiyan, Alexandra Sicotte-Lévesque, at the time the Advocacy and Communications Specialist for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said:
“Well done to First Response Radio! We have been going around radio (stations) in Tacloban talking about our (mobile) medical missions for pregnant & breastfeeding women . . . every day in a new barangay – we identify these women in advance in each community, but it’s not possible to identify everyone of course . . . so radio really helps. When our nurses went on First Response Radio the turnout was incredible – 250+ women showed up in one morning (compared to only 40 the previous day).”
Since 2004, our FRR teams have responded to 20 disasters with the most recent being the 2015 Nepal earthquake, Typhoon Koppu (Lando) in the Philippines, the South India floods, and the Afghan-Pakistan earthquake.
Out of catastrophe in Indonesia, we developed this network to empower victims of natural disasters. We hope to continue our field trainings and provision of equipment, which allow these countries to not only protect the safety of their citizens through the dispersal of critical information but also to provide comfort and hope in the midst of disaster.
(1) Karin Hugelius, Mervyn Gifford, Per Ortenwall, Annsofie Adolfsson, “To silence the deafening silence”: Survivor’s needs and experiences of the impact of disaster radio for their recovery after a natural disaster, International Emergency Nursing (2015), doi: 10.1016/j.ienj.2015.11.009