Learning from ‘Ondoy’ the Smart way

One year after typhoon “Ondoy” put to test the company’s ability to provide timely response and service assistance in the event of a disaster, Smart Communications Inc. has applied the lessons learned from the experience to further strengthen its disaster response program.

At the heart of this commitment to continuously improve to be prepared for even the worst scenario is knowing the importance of keeping communication lines working during times of calamities.

Debbie Hu, Smart’s access and transport operations and maintenance head, explains that family members need to contact loved ones to ask for help or to assure them of their well-being, while government agencies, rescue and relief workers need to coordinate response efforts.

“Network engineers are trained to respond to natural calamities such as typhoons. Even before a typhoon hits the country, engineers are dispatched to crucial areas to bring spare parts, generator sets or alternative communications equipment just in case a base station breaks down,” she says.

According to Ronald Miranda, senior supervisor of the Regional Command Center, Smart’s preparations cover all stages.

In the pre-disaster stage, they keep track of the typhoon and its direction so that they can deploy people in areas that are likely to be hit. They also make sure that field operations personnel have alternative means of communication, food and allowance. Families of those deployed are also informed about their assignments.

During the typhoon, monitoring the network’s health is the main concern. This becomes the basis for immediate disaster response, provided that the situation indicates it’s safe to proceed.

This kind of preparation served Smart well when “Ondoy” unleashed a month’s worth of rain in just six hours, bringing about the biggest volume of rainfall in the country in 42 years.

Around 300 people were reported to have died at the height of the storm, which also caused an estimated P4.8 billion in damage to agriculture and infrastructure.

Smart, though badly hit, managed to provide communications in the hard-hit areas of Marikina City, Cainta, Pasig City and the province of Rizal.

Network engineers restored 75 percent of the affected base stations within two days after the storm, while the rest were repaired within five days.

At the same time, Smart set up Libreng Tawag Centers in key affected areas in Metro Manila, such as Marikina and Pasig, and in Cainta. Residents of these areas were able to communicate with their family members either in the Philippines or abroad for free.

In areas where Smart had restored its services but which were still without electric power, Smart provided free cellphone charging stations via generator sets at the Libreng Tawag centers.

Although Smart efficiently restored most of its communication services at the shortest possible time, adjustments still had to be made.

“We realized that our field operations personnel cannot do it alone. We have since involved third party partners — our vendors, contractors — everyone involved in operations. They, too, are deployed in affected areas,” says Miranda.

Smart has also rehabilitated its back-up battery system to last longer and added generators and support facilities.

“Ondoy” also led Smart to reassess the location of its cell sites, especially those in flood-prone areas. Plus, a new standard has been set in terms of the elevation of the cell sites from street level.

“We took note of the height reached by the flood- waters and made more allowance,” shares Miranda.

Smart has also standardized monitoring and processing tools in its operation centers for more accurate and reliable monitoring that ultimately allows for better post-disaster recovery efforts.

The function of rubber boats during heavy flooding is something the company has also taken note of, given the many situations during “Ondoy” when the boats became the only possible means of reaching stranded people.

Miranda shares that this is not to benefit just the Smart people in the field but also their families who might be among those affected. It is also useful for Smart’s community services.

Also, Smart created disaster response teams in North, Central and South Luzon, NCR, the Visayas and Mindanao and sought the help of the Corporate Network for Disaster Response (CNDR) in defining their roles and responsibilities by identifying what activities were necessary to deliver efficient emergency assistance to communities and partners when needed.

“Smart is the first member company of CNDR to implement the disaster response workshop among its employees nationwide,” says CNDR executive director Hilda Tabar-Cleofe.

Now, Smart’s disaster response teams are better prepared since they know what needs to be done and by which unit to provide the necessary assistance, whether it’s in terms of communication services or relief operations and distribution.

With a disaster recovery program well in place, the key to success is still in the hands of the Smart employees who make it work — individuals who, in the face of great danger, would put their safety second to their commitment to serve the public in Smart’s name.

“The events during Ondoy that I witnessed and stories I heard only reinforce the belief that the greatest asset Smart has is its people,” says Miranda.

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