PHILIPSBURG–Section Head for Disaster Management Paul Martens has expressed concern over Government’s delay in paying for a new early warning system, despite the latter already giving approval for the purchases.
A new hurricane season starts June 1, 2017, but the territory and region in general are prone to earthquakes, floods and tsunamis at any time, and the current sirens on poles first installed in St. Maarten in 2006 are no longer working since the former computer system broke down.
First used successfully in Anguilla within the European Union (EU)-funded Regional Risk Reduction Initiative R3I managed by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Barbados, the new system incorporates a Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) server that can generate multi-hazard warning messages through different media.
It can operate sirens, send short message service (SMS) notes, and interrupt radio and TV signals with a message to alert the population. Additional Radio Interrupt equipment is also part of the warning package.
Improvements to the Anguilla system led to its implementation in St. Maarten, Anguilla, Aruba and Montserrat. St. Maarten, one of the four countries taking part in the pilot R3I project, received a CAP server and four digital Radio Interrupts.
“Four radio interrupts was not enough for all the radio stations on the Dutch side,” stated Martens. “So we got approval to purchase eight more costing US $24,000 but we are still waiting for payment from the finance department and this has been going on for about a year and a half.
“At the same time the company that was attracted by the project went bankrupt and no longer serves the CAP server customers. Anguilla, collaborating with UNDP, then found a company in Croatia that met the requirements. The company, Optim IT, was evaluated and UNDP financed the next step for Anguilla and now they have it up and running. It’s also being implemented in St. Vincent, St. Lucia and Barbados.”
Based on positive feedback from UNDP in Barbados about the system, Martens contacted the company in Croatia in order to purchase the $46,000 software/maintenance package for the CAP server.
“We got approval for this too, but Government hasn’t paid for it yet, which is why the sirens are not working.”
Despite the payment setbacks, promotion literature on the early warning system has been produced in five languages: Dutch, English, French, Papiamentu and Spanish.
Martens explained the sirens will be used again for signal and voice message despite their flaws, but temporarily as part of a much broader method of alerting the population using today’s technology.
“SMS messaging has issues in that if you have two phones from the same company, you might get one message immediately, but the other message an hour later, because the band width for SMS is very narrow and there is a cost involved,” he explained. “But a new system, Cell Broadcast, launched in Europe and the USA, works differently by regions.
“The focal point for the warning is the cell tower. On the map zones to be alerted can be selected. The warning is sent from the phone company to the specific tower and everybody in that area gets the message. But they need to enable their cell broadcast system. Today, almost everybody has a cell phone, some more than one, and the messages relate to multi-hazard warning, evacuation and curfew information.
“Cell Broadcast is expensive initially because equipment needs to be installed at the provider. UTS was interested but we didn’t have the CAP server operational. Once the CAP server is running again it will also be able to generate cell broadcast messages. And email is the other messaging tool, hence the sign-up option for that.”
The drawback with sirens, Martens continued, is that they don’t reach everyone and don’t serve the purpose if the people don’t know what to do.
“Once cell broadcast is up and running, sirens will be eliminated because of the cost factor, maintenance and the technique is very old fashioned. They don’t survive well in a tropical climate, and whether you hear the signal or spoken word clearly depends on your location and the wind direction. We took the decision two years ago not to expand on the first phase of the sirens until we have something better.”
When the time comes, technical installations will be done by the system’s expert in Anguilla while the company from Croatia can log on remotely and make sure everything is working correctly.