The earthquake in Haiti was undoubtedly a tremendous human tragedy, and for communicators, it represented an enormous challenge to conduct operations on a truly combined basis. Operation Unified Response (OUR) provided a unique opportunity for data sharing between the Department of Defense, State Department, Haitian government, multinational military forces, civilian doctors from a multitude of nations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). All of these organizations required real-time, full mesh, two-way, mission-critical communications within a country whose communications infrastructure had just been decimated. This situation was exacerbated by the fact that the initial center of gravity for this operation was the USNS Comfort (T-AH 20), which was at anchor off the coast of Haiti, with very limited communications capabilities. This operation validated some of our preconceptions about multilateral communications and taught us some new lessons.
The immediate need upon arrival of USNS Comfort was to conduct medical triage for critically injured Haitians. During the first 10 days on station, a helicopter loaded with patients landed on Comfort at an average of every eight minutes. While the air traffic control tower and pilots are accustomed to talking to each other via radio, there remained the issue of tasking. An Air Tasking Order (ATO) was drafted nightly, but the reality was that as many as six mobile triage sites were set up daily to support 22 field hospitals. These triage sites were little more than an open area suitable to land a helicopter with a team consisting of a trauma doctor, expeditionary communications team and field security team.
The doctors on the ground, mostly from NGOs, were responsible for providing feedback to the operations center aboard Comfort which provided tasking to the helicopters via the tower. Although there were many NGOs taking part in OUR, Comfort primarily worked with nine of them providing medical support services.
The medical regulating control officer,a senior chief corpsman aboard Comfort, would direct the helicopter to the appropriate shore or sea-based hospital depending upon the medical needs of the patient and the availability of care at the hospital. This tasking included everything from medical evacuations (medevacs) and American citizen (AMCIT) evacuations to redeployment of triage teams, and distinguished visitors movements. This highly dynamic operational environment required timely and accurate communications with civilian and multinational military forces and NGOs, as well as a historical record of the operations.
Forget landlines; Haiti has none to speak of. Like many developing nations, Haiti's cellular infrastructure is far superior to its landline infrastructure. However, during the first week of OUR, the severely degraded cellular network was unable to meet the demand placed on it by the Haitians and the thousands of relief workers trying to coordinate a relief response. Landline phone calls routinely took 30 minutes or more to place, and more often than not, cellular-placed calls were dropped after a few minutes due to the heavy load on the cellular network.
Short message service (SMS) texts were the primary command and control (C2) channel in the first few days of the operation. SMS texts are short in length, provide a legal record (log), require very little bandwidth, and enable guaranteed delivery. These are the minimum standards required for any mission-critical C2 platform. More importantly, SMS uses open standards and requires no specialized equipment or software; anyone with a cell phone or Web browser can use it. Due to its positive attributes, SMS continued to be a primary C2 channel throughout the operation. From a strategic communications perspective, the networks used for SMS are viewed as communal so there was no perception that the United States or the Defe