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Puerto Rico’s Newest Disaster-Fighting Tool Works Even When the Power Goes Out

A new communications network will help community health centers across the island get what they need during emergencies, so they can continue responding.


Puerto Rico

Radio communication forms part of a larger network that will be used to respond to future disasters in Puerto Rico. (Photo courtesy of PRPCA)

When Hurricane Maria raged through Puerto Rico, it knocked out the island’s power grid, which in turn left the vast majority of its wireless cell sites out of service.

This was a serious problem for community health centers trying to respond to the storm and provide care to patients.

For example, if a health center “needed fuel for a power generator, it needed to begin a lengthy process of mobilization to the Center for Emergency Operations in San Juan – a task that could take hours,” explained Alicia Suárez, executive director of the Puerto Rico Primary Care Association (PRPCA), which represents 22 health centers with 67 sites across the island.

The PRPCA wanted to ensure that this didn’t happen again, even if Puerto Rico’s fragile power grid was hit by another disaster. That meant developing a safe, reliable alternate communications system that could kick in even if the power was out.

In 2018, after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, pharmaceutical company AbbVie donated $50 million to Direct Relief for the recovery and strengthening of community healthcare services.  As part of this donation, Direct Relief procured 69 specialized radios, valued at more than $288,000. These radios were the foundation for a new Interoperable 330 network between 67 community health centers and the PRPCA.

This particular radio technology, the P25, is used worldwide by first responders and public safety officials – including federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security. An encrypted radio system offers privacy and security; the radio is also backed by the SAFECOM program, endorsed by the U.S.’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Dr. Darielys Cordero, director of Special Projects and Clinic Quality in the PRPCA, said that the equipment will help health centers promptly report their status – and any immediate needs – to the government during a disaster or other emergency. The community health centers will be able to communicate with their satellite clinics, one another, and the PRPCA as well.

“We will be able to draw attention to what happens in the communities where the 330 centers are located, guaranteeing the continuity of operations and access to healthcare services,” Cordero said.

Since the aftermath of 2017’s Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Direct Relief has supported primary health care centers and the PRPCA with the necessary equipment and training to respond urgently to a future emergency. The organization has helped procure medical mobile units and off-road vehicles, installed resilient energy systems, repaired infrastructure, and implemented programs to support the island’s vulnerable communities.

Power technicians work on downed lines in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, which crippled the island’s power system. The long-term power outage was linked to thousands of deaths on the island, including of patients without access to medical treatments like dialysis or oxygen that require electrical power. (Photo by Erika Rodriguez for Direct Relief)

In April, the lights went out across Puerto Rico once again. This time, however, it was an opportunity to test the new radios and streamline the communications plans – part of the process of strengthening what Cordero calls an “emergency management culture.”

According to Cordero, the communications network will “save time when communicating a need” and allow participants to “redirect resources to address continued needs,” making it more likely that community health centers will be able to continue responding to the emergency.

It will also make reporting to government entities easier.

After Hurricane Maria, “we had to visit each of the clinics,” Cordero said. Now, with reports coming in from across the island, “the information process flows quicker.”

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