Why Cisco spends $3.5m a year to maintain a dedicated disaster relief team
Cisco’s Tactical Operations (TacOps) programme
- Provides on-the-ground technical expertise
- Connectivity in crisis environments
- Can deploy anywhere in the world in three days
Communication is critical in a crisis. Here’s how Cisco's on-the-ground team continues to use its technology to help connect and protect people – from refugees, to victims of natural disaster.
As Network Consulting Engineer Rakesh Bharania was coming in to land in Guiuan, the Philippines after Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, he saw the destruction that the wind and storm surge had done to the seaside community. “I remember feeling the weight of responsibility on our shoulders, the sense that we’d better get our job done right for all those people on the ground.”
In a crisis, communication is everything; without it, government agencies and humanitarian organisations can’t get food, water and medical care as quickly to those in need.
Enter Cisco’s Tactical Operations (TacOps) programme, providing on-the-ground technical expertise and connectivity in crisis environments. “We know what communications means to people in an emergency, and we’re in a unique position to be able to assist with some of the best technology in the world,” says Bharania, who is TacOps’ West Coast lead.
The highly skilled and dedicated team can deploy anywhere in the world in three days, equipped with mobile vehicles such as the Network Emergency Response Vehicle (NERV) and portable communications kits when normal communications infrastructure isn’t functioning.
Cisco is one of the only Silicon Valley companies with a full-time, dedicated disaster response team, and its ten-strong team is supported by 350 trained employee-volunteers known as the Disaster Incident Response Team (DIRT), who can join TacOps for up to two weeks away from their normal jobs without losing pay or taking holiday time.
Since 2005, the team has responded to 39 disasters on six continents and connected more than 600,000 people during acute crises. Communication can give the outside world valuable information about what types of assistance are required on the ground, while also helping refugees and victims stay connected with friends and loved ones.
“When refugees would get on the boats in Turkey, they’d enter a black hole of information. Their families and friends would lose contact with them and they’d have no idea whether they made it to Greece alive or not,” says Bharania. “I saw refugees arriving in the camps who were still wet from the boat ride. They’d see the sign that there was wi-fi, and they’d scramble to pull their smartphones out of their protective bags, and they’d get online and tell their friends or family that they were still alive. We could see with our own eyes in those moments why connectivity mattered.”
The challenge of cybersecurity threats
One of the biggest and growing challenges is cybersecurity threats, which are even trickier to manage in a crisis situation says Bharania.“The risk for responders and affected populations is substantial. In the midst of crisis, they are among the most vulnerable people to cyberattack. We focus on building cybersecurity measures and protections into our network architecture to maintain privacy and data protection for first responders or refugees.”
As part of Cisco’s corporate social responsibility program, the TacOps programme – which costs Cisco around $3.5 million a year – gives aid free of charge. Naturally, the program has some business benefits, such as improving brand loyalty, with
“ Cisco is seen as a responsible and responsive company in times of crisis ”
Experiences in the field can be fed into the process for improving products and solutions, and the programme is helping to hire and keep the best talent of people who want to work for a company that does good in the world, supporting critical human needs in a very visible and tangible way.
Why collaboration is key
One of the keys to the programme’s success – now an established part of the company’s culture – is a deep commitment to collaboration. Lessons learned and best practices from deploying technology in crisis are shared with the United Nations, governments, NGOS as well as others in the tech industry. “We have focused on establishing working relationships with our partner organisations before emergencies happen, so that when the crisis hits, there is already trust and familiarity. We can then focus our efforts on meeting the immediate needs of the moment knowing that we share the same objectives, terminology, and concepts of operation,” says Bharania.
“The fieldwork that we do can be intense. We get called out to some of the world’s most critical emergencies,” says Bharania. “But it is also incredibly fulfilling to be able to take all of our skills and experience and apply it in an extremely tangible way.”