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Itogon tragedy: Technology vital in search for signs of life

by Smart Communications | Oct 03, 2018
Smart Communications, with the support of Vodafone Foundation, set up free charging and Wi-Fi services at the barangay hall, the retrieval site, and the designated operations center for response, relief and evacuation for typhoon victims in Ucab, Itogon, Benguet.

Itogon tragedy: Technology vital in search for signs of life

Catherine Balolang, 30, a licensed nurse and child development worker, was well aware of the kind of danger the approaching typhoon could bring to the mountainous region she calls home. News reports said “Ompong” (international name: Mangkhut) would barrel through northern Philippines, including Benguet province, where mining is one of the top industries. 
 
Coming from a family of miners, residing in Ucab village in Itogon town, Balolang has learned to live with her fears and prepare for the worst.
 
The family’s survival kits packed, she joined fellow village volunteers in monitoring weather reports. Through a group chat they created on Facebook Messenger, they shared updates gathered from news sources and local authorities.   
 
Suddenly what seemed an interminable silence followed as “Ompong” intensified on Sept.15, toppling power and communication lines, and cutting off contact with folks in the mining sites. 
 
As the worst of the typhoon passed, and mobile phone and data services were gradually restored, the village volunteers’ group chat became deluged with queries and calls for help, as well as grim reports no one wanted to hear. 
 
The typhoon had triggered a landslide in Itogon. Among those trapped in a mining site was a cousin of Balolang, whose wife and children lived in Isabela, another typhoon-ravaged province.  
 
She and her fellow volunteers converged near the landslide site, as the community organized rescue missions, ahead of the official operations by local authorities. Everyday thereafter, the volunteers went back to the site, not only to search for their missing loved ones but also to help in the operations in whatever way they could.  

Itogon tragedy: Technology vital in search for signs of life

Days rolled by, and still there was no word on Balolang’s cousin. “We hope he’s alive, but … we just want to find him and allow his family to grieve properly,” she said. 
 
Telecommunications company Smart Communications immediately deployed portable generator sets to the barangay (village) hall for the use of rescuers. The barangay usually taps the company to send provisions for power when there’s outages due to calamities.
 
“The barangay rescuers need electricity to charge their searchlights, portable radios and power banks, which are important for retrieval operations. They also need to charge their phones, and be able to communicate with their families, as well as the local authorities,” said Vivien Prado, a Smart sales employee based in Baguio City, about 16 kilometers from Itogon.
 
Efforts soon shifted from rescue to retrieval as it became apparent that the chances of finding survivors in a landslide of that magnitude were slim. In the aftermath, 70 died and dozens were injured or went missing. 
 
Also at the retrieval site everyday was Charity Lubiton, 17, whose uncle was trapped in the landslide. Relatives had been relying on her for updates. 
 
“When the typhoon struck and power was cut, we couldn’t charge our phones. We can’t communicate with our relatives,” Lubiton lamented. 
 
Like food, first aid, and relief goods, technology plays a crucial role in an emergency. 

Itogon tragedy: Technology vital in search for signs of life

Upon the recommendation of Prado, Smart, with the support of Vodafone Foundation, set up free charging and Wi-Fi services in Ucab. London-based Vodafone Foundation deployed their Instant Charge and Wi-Fi solutions at the barangay hall, the retrieval site, and the designated operations center for response, relief and evacuation for typhoon victims. 
 
In 2012 and 2013, Vodafone brought its ultra-portable Instant Network to Davao Oriental and Eastern Samar provinces, which were devastated by Typhoons “Pablo” (Bopha) and “Yolanda” (Haiyan), respectively. The solution provided affected residents with cellular coverage within 3- to 5-km radius, and enabled up to 80 calls and thousands of text messages sent at the same time.
 
“After an earthquake or any humanitarian crisis we noticed, apart from food and water, what victims need is connectivity, to be able to inform their families that they are OK, to call, to not feel isolated,” said Ainhoa Montero de Espinosa, relationship and governance manager at Vodafone, who volunteered for this mission in Itogon.
 
“They also need to charge their phones, especially if they fled their homes,” said Harm Kanters, a technical solution architect at VodafoneZiggo Netherlands, another volunteer of the foundation.
 
“The Philippines experiences about 20 typhoons a year. So at Smart, we work hard to keep our network online and to restore services quickly in case of disruptions.  At the same time, we also work with partners like Vodafone Foundation, so we develop good working ties with international organizations, which will be invaluable especially for large-scale disasters like earthquakes and super typhoons,” said Smart public affairs head Ramon R. Isberto. 
 
Vodafone Foundation deployed in Itogon its ultra-portable Instant Wi-Fi solution, which provided robust and secure Wi-Fi to up to 1,500 users across an area of up 10,000 sq m. It also set up an Instant Charge station, which powered up to 32 phones simultaneously.   
 
“This is very useful to us. We need the Wi-Fi to consolidate data on dead and missing persons, send reports, post updates, make records and send to headquarters immediately,” said Jasmine Bugtong, a police officer at the Cordillera Administrative Region, which has jurisdiction over Benguet.  

Itogon tragedy: Technology vital in search for signs of life

Air operations officer Jomar Marcito, who was deployed at the designated operations center for typhoon response, relief and evacuation, also relied on mobile communications. “We need it for continuous communications, to check if there’s a need to augment air operations, or other activities that would need our attention,” he said.
 
For Itogon Mayor Victorio Palangdan there was no overstating the importance of having stable, secure communication in times of disasters. “We send reports to Manila and even abroad… we’re crippled without information,” he said.
 
The communication facilities at the operations center enabled Lubiton to contact her relatives, and Balolang to update her fellow volunteers on the progress of retrieval operations, and family members on the search for her cousin.
 
For housewife Jill Landocan, 32, who lives in another part of Ucab that was hit by a landslide, her mobile phone was a life saver. She recalled texting her sister-in-law to leave their house quickly.  
 
“As soon as she received my message, a part of their kitchen ceiling fell,” she narrated. Her sister-in-law’s husband was trapped in one of the rooms, but he was able to escape by kicking down the steel sheet that served as wall. He, along with his wife and her parents, were able to escape unharmed, just before the landslide buried their house. They went to an evacuation center. 
 
“If they didn’t get my message on time, they would probably still be there, trapped,” Landocan said. 
 
Her phone drained shortly after her life-saving text, as power was cut, and it was only days later that she was able to contact her own family, who had been worried that she might have been trapped, too. The road going to their place had been inaccessible, so she and her husband have had to walk about two kilometers to the municipal operations center to get provisions. 

Itogon tragedy: Technology vital in search for signs of life

Balolang and Lubiton, meanwhile, lost their kin, their bodies retrieved after about a week. 
 
Ucab village chief Kennedy Waclin vowed to continue the search until all missing persons are found. “We need to give the dead a proper burial,” he said.

The retrieval operations halted on Sept. 30, two weeks after the devastating landslide.
 
The landslide in Itogon revived objections to small-scale mining operations. Balolang is not one to engage in debate. 
 
“My father is a miner, his parents are also miners. This is the life we know, and the community we live in. Mining has given me the life and opportunities I have now, and I will always be grateful for it,” she said.

About Smart Communications

Smart Communications Inc. (Smart) is a wholly owned wireless communications and digital services subsidiary of PLDT Inc., the Philippines’ leading telecommunications company. Smart provides mobile communications services, high-speed internet connectivity, and access to digital services and content to about 60 million Filipinos, through its commercial brands Smart, TNT, and Sun. Smart also offers satellite communication services under the brand Smart World.

About the Vodafone Foundation

The Vodafone Foundation's Connecting for Good programme combines Vodafone's charitable giving and technology to make a difference in the world. Globally, the Vodafone Foundation supports projects that are focused on delivering public benefit through the use of mobile technology across the areas of health, education and disaster relief. The Vodafone Foundation invests in the communities in which Vodafone operates and is at the centre of a network of global and local social investment programmes. The Vodafone Foundation Instant Network Emergency Response programme deploys people and specialised technology to provide free communications and technical support in communities affected by natural or humanitarian disaster. The team has deployed 12 times in the past eight years. The Vodafone Foundation is a UK registered charity, registered charity number 10989625.