Emergency call

Télécoms Sans Frontières provides communication to victims of disasters and emergencies all over the world. George Bevir speaks with the founders about the origins of the organisation and what it needs from operators and vendors in the Middle East and Africa to help it establish a base in the region.

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Emergency call
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By  George Bevir Published  October 18, 2009 Communications Middle East & Africa Logo

The bomb that exploded in the grounds of the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar in Pakistan earlier this year killed 17 people and injured many more.

One of the injured was head of mission for Télécoms Sans Frontières, a France-based NGO that provides emergency communications for other NGOs and victims in war-torn and disaster hit parts of the world.

Following the attack, TSF’s Pakistan head Oisin Walton and his colleagues were evacuated from the city, but the 20 local employees TSF had trained were able to continue with the humanitarian calling operations in the different camps where some 2 million people have been displaced as a result of the conflict between the Pakistani army and the Taliban last April.

Local staff of the Youth Resources Centre (YRC), the NGO that TSF had partnered with, kept the operation going until TSF felt it was safe for its team to return, with the result that throughout June and July, over 3000 calls were made. TSF says that it was the only organisation offering free international calls to the internally displace people, many of whom have relatives spread across the Middle East, Europe and Asia.

The early years

The idea for TSF was born out of a situation that the founders were confronted  by many times during their work with humanitarian charities around the world. While on missions to places such as the Balkans and Kurdistan during the first Gulf War, Jean-François Cazenave and Monique Lanne-Petit realised that in addition to medical and food aid there was a need for reliable emergency telecommunications services. Cazenave and Lanne-Petit say they were often approached by refugees clutching scraps of paper pleading with them to call their relatives when they returned to France.

In 1998 TSF bought its first satellite phone and the organisation was born, and since then, on every TSF mission, affected families are offered a 3-minute call to anywhere in the world.

TSF also found that international response teams that deploy to emergencies had a critical need for reliable telecommunications services, particularly in the first days after an emergency. So Cazenave and Lanne-Petit expanded the operation, improving the technology to establish emergency telecommunications centres that could be deployed rapidly to serve the likes of the United Nations and NGO humanitarian workers.

Aside from its French HQ, TSF has two other permanent bases, one in Nicaragua and another in Thailand. The base in Bangkok was chosen because of the logistics, and also because South East Asia can be vulnerable to natural disasters. While the same is also true for Central America, the base there was established as a result of TSF’s history with the country, where it has helped in the past.

Regional presence

Now TSF wants a presence in the Middle East or Africa so it can respond quicker to any emergency situations that occur in the region. “We would like to have a base in Africa,” Jean-François Cazenave says. “We are thinking of setting up a base in Burkina Faso, or perhaps in a country in the Middle East, such as Lebanon. That would give us a good strategic position. We need also to have funds from partners who are located there,” he says.

 “Our objective is to arrive at an emergency in 24 hours, and that means that we need a regional base, and more regional bases would permit us to arrive in less than 24 hours. If we have one in Africa or one in the Middle East it will be a good opportunity for TSF and for the victims and NGOs who are there.”

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