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25 September 2017

Failure of communications in the Dutch Caribbean comes as no surprise

Recently, the University of Twente joined forces with the University of Curacao and Saxion University of Applied sciences to do research with regard to the effectiveness and quality of the communications and alert systems in the Dutch Caribbean.

The research, which was commissioned by the Dutch Scientific Research and Documentation Centre (WODC), was completed just before hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the Caribbean. The main conclusion of the investigation was that the communication systems on the islands of Bonaire, St. Eustatius, and Saba are functioning reasonably well, but that it is not possible to guarantee proper communications in all areas and under all possible circumstances. Disasters and other crises might give rise to issues within the operational communication and information exchange.

Researchers from the University of Curacao visited all locations within the Dutch Caribbean, where they interviewed a wide range of stakeholders and investigated the current state of affairs. The research focused on the effectiveness and the quality of all available means of communication, such as emergency numbers, mobile phones, land lines, walkie-talkies, two-way radios, marine radios, satellite resources, television, radio, and social media. The concepts of effectiveness and quality were further operationalised in terms of coverage, range, accessibility, reliability, availability, back-up facilities, and capacity.

Vulnerabilities

In terms of accessibility and reliability, for instance, several emergency services indicated that their equipment and devices are (partially) outdated. There are also concerns regarding the level of maintenance, whether or not towers and back-up facilities are hurricane-proof, and the total amount of time that the emergency power supply should be able to keep key sites going. The vulnerabilities that were found do not solely pertain to technical matters but are often closely related to the geographical conditions and the overall small-scale nature of the islands. In addition, there are dilemmas when it comes to decision-making, such as weighing the telecommunications sector’s economic interests against safeguarding the population’s safety interests.

Recommendations

The report provides a number of practical solutions, as well as ten specific recommendations that will benefit the effectiveness of the communication systems in the Dutch Caribbean. There are several technical measures that can be implemented in the short term, while other actions will require more time and coordination. Irna van der Molen (University of Twente): “There are certain key moments that are well suited for thoroughly investigating the additional measures needed to further ensure the population’s safety interests. Examples are reviews and adjustments (for example with agreements), renewals (of concessions, permits, and the like), recalibrations of laws and regulations, when other measures are implemented, and after disasters such as hurricanes Irma and Maria.”