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KEYNOTE ADDRESS BY MR. JAMES LIONEL ELLIS– The importance of Communication in Disaster Management.
Published on April 2, 2018






The importance of Communication in Disaster Management.

The subject can be used widely across the realms of our society but is often forgotten as the most important tool for solving difficult situations especially in critical times where loss of life and property is concerned.

Ladies and Gentlemen.

It was probably back in 1955 as a boy of 8 years I became involved in communicating during a disaster.

That year 1955 for those of you who can remember, was the year a powerful hurricane named Janet, affected Barbados and Grenada causing $7.8 M in damage and took 189 lives.

I was then a junior operator in my father’s Ham radio room, assisting in passing vital weather information from Barbados to Puerto Rico and around the Caribbean.

There was no other means that was anywhere near as efficient or with today’s technology.

Ladies and gentlemen, we in the Caribbean have come a long way, but it is clear to me that there is still a lot to learn and a lot more to do, if we are to be ahead of the game in communication in Disaster Management and to be more resilient not only to hurricanes, but to the many other situations that we may face.

Communication in disaster management is for every single person. To often it is believed to be only for the individuals employed in agencies such as DEM in Barbados, NEMO in Saint Lucia or NADMA in Grenada, to name a few.

Communication in Disaster Management is for everyone. It is important for every business man or woman, and worker and every home owner and citizen.

Those persons employed in the agencies that I have mentioned are only employed to focus primarily on the subject, and to make sure the general public is kept abreast with the dos and don’ts, and to help shape policies and procedures for any eventuality.

They also have to work as a team within all the areas of Government. In other words, the prime managers in Disaster communication are the POLICE, Fire, Health, Communications & Transport, among a few.

Police Dept. for Security

Fire Dept. for Search and Rescue

Health Dept. for life saving needs, medical supplies and the general health of the nation, including water which is always a major problem and Communication, Works and Transport for movement of people and services.

These agencies all work well within their own limitations.

However, the people of Barbados and the wider Caribbean still have a lot to do and to change, to be fully prepared to reduce the effects, and become more resilient to some of the disasters we have seen, far less what the future may bring.

Ladies and Gentlemen, as I said earlier, communication in disaster management is for everyone.

But let me hasten to say that communication in disaster management starts long before a disaster happens.

This is worth repeating: communication in disaster management starts long before a disaster happens.

Therefore, it must be clear that special emphasis must be placed on ensuring that every single member of staff is properly trained to understand this element of their job, duty and responsibilities.

It is not only for managers and supervisors; it is for everyone from top to bottom. Business owners as well as new or temporary employees.

Ladies and Gentlemen we have seen the effects of hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, vehicle accidents etc. But how many of us have experienced any of these?

How many of us have been trapped in a building, especially, trapped during a storm, or in an accident where you now have to spend time with someone you never had the chance to speak to, or said hello to.

Simply, how would you feel to know the only time you speak to a member of your staff is when you got a flat tire on your vehicle in the dead of the night on a lonely road?

Just think about living with someone for weeks in a place you would not dream of being in, day or night.

“Maybe some of us men would not mind if she was young and beautiful lady”.

But seriously, we must learn to communicate long before we get hit with some uncertainty.

How many of you here today have members of staff that you have never spoken to? Not even hello. I hope none

How about being in and elevator somewhere between the 8th or 9th floor of a building, and no one comes to your rescue for hours.

But ladies and gentlemen, it is not only in the work place it is also in the homes and in our private ways of living.  A disaster management plan for your home is a very important matter you and everyone outside this room should have.

Just after the passage of Hurricane Irma, I was asked by CDEMA to go into the BVI to assess the situation in that country.

My trip was on a private jet commissioned by the prime Minister of Saint Lucia, on board was the Director of the OECS Dr. Didicus Jules and Prime Minister Skerrit from Dominica, among others.

At that time we were unaware that another Category 5 hurricane called Maria was shaping up in the Atlantic. Prime Minister Skerrit left the BVI with all intention to be in a position to assist the BVI, not knowing that his country would be in need as well.

The damage done by those two hurricane was more than the Caribbean had experienced in several past events.

This leads us to believe that now is the time for us to have a different look at the way we think about preparedness in the Caribbean.

With our economies heavily dependent on Tourism, hoteliers must now shape and brace themselves for experiences that they can only hope never reach our islands.

Let’s take a closer look at the hotel sector in Barbados for example.

In the event that this island is hit by a category 5 or higher hurricane or any other disaster with similar effect, Electricity, water, telephone, road network   infrastructure all damaged, what do you have in place?

The mobile telephone providers are left helpless as in the case of the BVI and the USVI.

When every single telephone pole is broken or on the ground. Eighty to 90% of all vehicles (including those new ones at the dealers) are damaged with windows blown out.

When reserved water tanks are blown away or damaged by flying objects.

When looting and disorder is rampant across the island. People looking for food, water and anything else they can survive on.

When Police and Fire stations left helpless with damaged with no radio communications.

When the Grantley Adams Airport is damaged and closed.

Hotel guest by the hundreds trying to leave the island but cannot.

Destruction never seen before in Barbados.

This is what Barbados should be prepared for, based on what was recently experienced in Puerto Rico, The USVI, the BVI and Dominica.

What was significantly missing in those countries after the disaster was communication.

As a result of my survey, in every case, it was evident that the heavy dependence on modern technologies such as cell phones was a major, major   problem.  Even the service providers were left helpless.

Secondly, because our islands are well away from the mainland and our heavy reliance on foreign assistance, the recovery time will be very long and painful to our people. 

What I have been advocating across the Caribbean is to understand the most important thing in managing disasters is quick and reliable communication.

Here are some questions I would like to put to this gathering:

  1. In a national disaster, can any of the hotels in Barbados communicate with other hotels in a five mile radius?
  2. In a national disaster, can the major business houses communicate with each other within a five mile radius?
  3. In a national disaster, can any hotel communicate to the Queen Elizabeth hospital, the closest health facility, the closest Police or closest Fire station?
  4. In a national disaster, Can the Ministries of Government communicate between each other?
  5. Can the supermarkets communicate with each other or with other of the above agencies?

Ladies and Gentlemen, when before, during and after a disaster, communication between all of these agencies and businesses can be maintained, then and only then can Barbados and the Caribbean say they are ready. 

And all of this must be done without repeaters, telephone, electricity, etc.

The answer to this is two-way VHF radio.

Yes, your organization may already have this form of communication, but this may be confined to your individual use: Maintenance, Security etc.

However, the technology can be extended to adjacent establishments within a specific range, on another channel.

In Saint Lucia, NEMO has extended one of their frequencies for that purpose, making it available to all radio users. Every single individual, company, marina, taxi, security service, delivery service etc., can use this frequency or channel under the control of NEMO.

Unlike Barbados, Saint Lucia is a mountainous country where towns and villages are isolated from each other. However, with this system, someone with a hand radio in Castries can travel to Soufriere or Vieu-Fort and without changing the channel on the radio will be able to communicate with all the agencies in the area network.

In this country Barbados, this is even more applicable since the range of radios would be greater due to the flat terrain.Your handheld radio will do the same, whether in Bridgetown, St. Lucy or St. Philip.

Managers of Hotels should have frequent emergency exercises with their counterparts.

Dedicated radios may be necessary in some cases.

Therefore I hope that DEMS would be able to implement this in Barbados. But the BHTA can have that arrangement as well for the use of its members.

Ladies and gentlemen, we must learn to communicate.

Communication drills must be scheduled periodically and evaluated, without any of the normal means, so that you can know your strengths and weaknesses.

Talk power is very important:  In disaster situations, all the marketing and sales drives you have will be washed away unless you have the ability to communicate effectively within the boundaries of your establishment as well as to your neighbours and friends around you.

Your guests and other expected visitors to your hotel will certainly appreciate your ability to respond effectively.

So the importance of communications in disaster management should be very clear. History has shown that regardless how simple or severe the situation becomes, the ability to communicate is key to survival.

I wish to thank you for this opportunity to share these few words with you, but before I take my seat I would be willing to answer any questions you may have for me.


And as a Caribbean man, my services are always available.

Ladies and Gentlemen I thank you.


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