In the aftermath of every major natural disaster, an alphabet soup of humanitarian aid organizations hit the ground within hours or days, distinguishable by the logos on their dirty (after a few days) t-shirts and the sides of their mud-spattered Land Cruisers. Also on the scene almost immediately are uniformed civil defense and emergency services agencies, deploying manpower and heavy equipment to lead search and rescue operations, and restore essential services.

A third group that can be found at disaster scenes maintains – for the most part – a much lower profile. When I ran into Cisco Systems TacOps operations coordinator Rob Kelly at the airstrip in Guiuan, Philippines, he was standing next to a giant inflatable satellite antenna, a great conversation starter. Kelly was in Guiuan leading Cisco’s response to Typhoon Haiyan (known in the Philippines as Typhoon Yolanda), supporting Philippine Army communications, as well as working with local telcos, the United Nations, and NetHope, an information technology-focused coalition of 41 non-governmental aid organizations.

I wasn’t able to interview Kelly on the record in Guiuan because he said he’d need permission from the Philippine Army public affairs department, but he spoke with me off the record, explaining what he and his colleagues were doing, and after I got home to Japan I followed up with Cisco in the U.S. (Kelly was still in the field), and managed to speak at length with Cisco Technical Leader Tim Woods.

TacOps, Woods explained, was created in 2003, and focused mainly on supporting U.S. Department of Defense customers, in “austere” environments. Deserts, mountains, the Arctic … places where it’s normally tough to get a WiFi signal.

In late 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed nearly 230,000 people across 15 countries, prompted Cisco – partnered with NetHope – to shift its focus to disaster response, supporting customers and NGO partners globally. “After that,” says Woods, “Hurricane Katrina made us realize we needed to developed a coordinated response. Not only for the company, but for our customers, and for communities. Since then, we have responded to a large number of disasters globally.”

Cisco Systems TacOps operations coordinator Rob Kelly in Guiuan

Cisco Systems TacOps operations coordinator Rob Kelly in Guiuan

In the immediate aftermath of emergencies that affect communications, Cisco’s TacOps teams deploy to establish IP-based communications for first responders, government agencies, relief organizations and others who require mission-critical connectivity to respond effectively. After Typhoon Yolanda, a TacOps team was in Manila within three days, testing equipment before heading into the field, and coordinating its response with Philippines government agencies through the Cisco office in Manila.

“We shipped several pallets of equipment to our Manila office immediately, but it took some time for those to arrive, and clear customs,” says Woods. “In the meantime, we met with local officials, put together a list of action items, and prepared ourselves to deploy, obtaining essentials such as bottled water, MREs, etc. One part of our preparation was to set up our equipment at the Manila office, to make sure everything was working as expected.

“The Philippines response was fairly typical,” continues Woods. “If there’s some warning, we will reach out proactively to the Cisco sales team locally. Specifically the team that supports government customers, though we certainly don’t limit our support to Cisco customers. At that stage, we introduce ourselves, give them our contact information, and brief them on what we can do. In the case of an event like an earthquake, with no advance warning, we reach our immediately afterwards to major NGOs and local government. Continuity of government, health and safety services are the priorities.”

In Guiuan, where there was no electricity, no running water, and no sanitation, the Cisco team set up right at the airstrip, where the military and civilian airlift was in full swing, landing dozens of aircraft daily during the daylight hours. “Ninety percent of our equipment is preconfigured and tested, so that part of the operation is pretty straightforward,” says Woods. “GATR Technologies, the company that manufactures the inflatable satellite dish, sent a technician along with out team, and they’ve been a great deployment partner.”

Woods prefaced our interview by saying Cisco has no interest in publicizing its disaster response activities, but as we wrapped up our conversation he noted the company clearly benefits from its disaster response operations. “There’s no better litmus test than taking products into the field under extreme conditions,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of interest in our Emergency Operations Center (EOC) technologies from customers and potential customers around the globe, and we collaborate closely with the global disaster technology community to develop standards and long-term solutions that leverage the latest network technologies and applications.

Cisco pulled its TacOps teams – comprising 11 people – out of the Philippines in December, but the emergency networks it deployed will remain in operation for as long as they are required, managed remotely by Cisco engineers.

Roberto De Vido is a communications consultant who has lived and worked in Asia for 25 years. He is the editor of Aidpreneur.com and producer of the Terms of Reference podcast.

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