Saturday, January 23, 2010

Low-tech radios connect some Haitians

Low-tech radios connect some Haitians In the brutal aftermath of Haiti's earthquake, Jean-Robert Gaillard turned to his low-tech radio for solace and for a lifeline. When the earthquake hit, the 57-year-old from Petionville, Haiti, found most of his normal lines of communication -- his cell phone, the Internet, even his ability to walk down the street and talk to someone -- severed by the disaster. But Gaillard used a neighbor's generator to power up his radio and connect to a handful of amateur radio enthusiasts in the United States -- many of whom were eagerly listening to radio static for calls like his. Unlike many other people in Haiti, Gaillard was able to contact family members in the United States soon after the January 12 earthquake hit to tell them he had survived. In those first hellish moments, that connection seemed like a miracle. "It relieved the tension of my family members," he said, speaking by Skype from Haiti on Tuesday, which he says wasn't possible until more recently. "They could hear my voice. They knew that I was OK." Much has been made about the role flashier technologies like Twitter, Skype and text messaging have played in helping disaster victims find loved ones and communicate with international aid workers. But it is worth noting that, when all else fails, the low-tech hum of a radio frequency is sometimes the only line of communication that's open. Enthusiasts of amateur radio -- or ham radio -- are quick to use this as evidence that international aid groups and governments should rely more heavily on radio in disaster situations. Ham radio signals bounce off of a layer of charged particles in Earth's atmosphere, called the ionosphere, and, depending on the conditions, can work at times when other modes of communication fail. But amateur radio is best viewed as one of many communications options in the wake of a disaster, said Keith Robertory, manager of disaster services technology at the American Red Cross, who has been helping in Haiti relief efforts from Washington. The best communication technology in a disaster, he said, is whatever happens to work at the time.

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