The Pacific region faces a number of challenges: small clusters of population across thousands of islands, poor mass communications infrastructure, and severe stormy weather on an annual basis. The lack of vital emergency communications systems means that without equipment such as a HF radio network, Pacific nations are not able to coordinate relief efforts and effective humanitarian support in cases of natural disaster.

Communications in the Pacific are severely restricted during and after storm season, with the frequent storms having devastating effects on local infrastructure. Humanitarian workers entering into these areas require communication tools that will function under all circumstances.

HF radio offers emergency workers unparalleled access to open communication channels that are unaffected by network outages or bad weather, even in areas without internet access or phone services.

HF radio operators can communicate over hundreds of kilometres using ionospheric frequencies, as such, field work can be carried out efficiently and humanitarians can stay in touch in case of emergencies.

Case study: Tonga

In Tonga, the island group faces extreme weather events every year. From cyclones to tsunamis, storms visit regularly, not discounting the active volcano that might erupt at any moment. Indeed, it suffered from a massive explosion on January 15, 2022 from the submarine Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, one that caused a tsunami across the Pacific Ocean and generated associated atmospheric shock waves.

It disrupted emergency communications as the country’s only undersea internet cable was damaged in the eruption, shredding an 80km section of the cable into pieces. It took the repair ship 10 days to get to Tonga, and a total of six weeks to fix it.

Tonga decided it needed a robust and comprehensive HF radio communication network to ensure emergency communications across its inhabited islands are not so critically disrupted in the future.

Equipment and training

Barrett Communications has a long history of assisting in the installation, training and ongoing support of emergency communication systems (emcomms) across the world. It has worked with many Caribbean nations to implement HF radio networks for both normal and critical communications.

Earlier this year, Mitchell Clifford, operational support specialist with Barrett, visited Tonga to work with the Tonga National Emergency Management Office (NEMO), which is under the Department of Communications under the Ministry of MEIDECC (Meteorology, Energy, Information, Disaster Management, Environment, Climate Change and Communications) This was all funded by World Food Organization and organised by the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) Pacific cluster.

We caught up with Mitchell Clifford to learn more about Barrett’s work in Tonga.

Can you provide an overview of the emcomms infrastructure in Tonga before and after your visit?

MC: When I arrived, I found the HF radio equipment situation challenging and a set of standard frequencies for immediate use were not available, so I immediately implemented the following steps.

As a team – with the students leading – we selected frequencies that would ensure communication across the S/W Pacific and Australia. We standardised the Selcall (selective calling) and Beacon number allocation for the area of operations. The group then collected all the orphaned “donated” HF radio equipment from several locations and integrated them into the new NEMO HF network, which established regular radio nets with Fiji, and the East Coast of Australia

Conducted in the capital city of Nukuʿalofa, the training was organised by the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) Pacific cluster in collaboration with Barret Communications along with local support from the Department of Communications, Meidecc, Tonga.

Assisting me in this were Ms. Maria Shumusti (ETC Media rep), Godefroy Asiamuah (ETC liaison) and Mr. Vineet Prasad (WFP ICT EPR Officer) with full support from John Dovale, the ETC & Information Communications Technology (etc/iCT) Coordinator at World Food Programme Suva, Fiji.

The training involved 8 official participants from different Ministries such as, Tonga Fire Emergency Services, Police, Marine Ports Division, MEIDECC – Communication Dept, NEMO and Tonga Meteorology.

This was part of the final phase of ETC support response to the Tongan volcanic eruption and tsunami event the deployment of the emergency communications infrastructure for the High Frequency (HF) emergency radio comms and coordination network.

What was the content of your training framework?

MC: I created a PowerPoint training package called “Passport to Radio Communications Standards for Emergency Responders”. It is based on the similarly titled “A Guide to Radio Communication Standards for Emergency Workers”, which was written in collaboration between the United Nations Development Programme, the European Commission Humanitarian Office, and the Disaster Preparedness Programme (DIPECHO), published in March 2010.

Apart from the international protocols for all radio message handling from the guide, I included several tiles that guided trainees to ensure strict adherence to the wording of all such communications over the HF network.

It included instructions such as the importance of developing and implementing common technical characteristics and guidelines for radio communication systems for early warning and disaster relief, to promote a common technical basis in planning for and responding effectively to an emergency.

There are tiles on how to perform regular radio checks and signal reports, call signs, how to send and receive messages clearly, corrections, cancelling and read backs, etc. I emphasised the importance of using ‘Prowords’ properly and listed them for future reference. I also provided copies of the Phonetic Alphabet and the Numerical Pronunciation standards.

All in all, I was happy with the level of ability this training provided the students, and I was careful to form a number of them as a nucleus of “train the trainer”, to ensure that the senior members involved in the training sessions understood the basics, knew where to find the training material and how to deliver it in a manner that would be picked up by other members of the community.

What are the Barrett equipment components of the new Tongan emcomms system?

MC: The equipment included six Barrett 4050 HF radios in the base station configuration, with a Barrett 4090 HF backpack radio for mobile contact. We also deployed six Barrett 912 Multi-wire dipoles for the base station installations with 12 10-metre masts for the base station installations.

To find out more about Barrett’s expertise, download the paper below.