On Wednesday 15 February, as communities in Gisborne and Hawke's Bay were trying to comprehend the devastation around them, Police ICT Principal Engineer Doug Thomas was heading into the region.
His mission was to help restore Police communications disrupted by Cyclone Gabrielle. He was unsure of what he was going to be faced with when he landed in Gisborne at 7pm, after a near 12-hour delay to his Air Force flight.
Doug, who normally works from Wellington, was met by Gisborne-based District Services Engineer (DSE) Pete Mygind. The team went straight to work and had initial comms up and running in Gisborne by 10.30pm - a critical factor in enabling frontline staff to focus on recovery and rescue work.
Starlink is go: DSEs Pete Mygind and Mike Phipps working to install Starlink at Ruatoria and Gisborne stations respectively. On the table in the centre is the Gisborne Starlink dish, awaiting installation.
ICT’s role in the relief hasn’t stopped there. DSE Mike Phipps joined the team on the ground in Tairāwhiti to begin reconnecting stations cut off by the many fibre breaks throughout the region.
Along with DSEs Warren Meekin and Hein Eksteen in Hawke’s Bay and key ICT staff throughout the country, ICT has re-established connectivity for 29 of the 30 affected police stations across the North Island. The 30th is the unusable Hawke's Bay Dog Base.
With the main fibre connections expected to be down for weeks in the worst-hit areas, ICT staff are working closely with partners at Vodafone and Spark to prioritise satellite connectivity and establish temporary physical fibre to increase the quality and number of data connections. ICT has also deployed Starlink internet connectivity to a number of affected police stations.
The Police radio network has been resilient, with communication continuing on local channels before connectivity was re-established to the Central Emergency Communications Centre on the night of Wednesday 15 February.
ICT staff have coordinated the delivery of 132 radios across flooded regions and worked to get to radio repeaters powered by generators, batteries and solar power to ensure comms channels stay connected.
In some cases, local police officers have supported the work by going out to check repeaters are in good working order.
“Our ICT crew - particularly our district staff - are often some of the first on the ground when disasters strike," says Chief Information Officer Matt Winter.
"With communications links so critical to any response, they often have to head into difficult to access areas, to get things up and running so our officers can do their job.”
The situation in Tairāwhiti is constantly changing, going from no internet connection to fully operational sites in Gisborne, Te Araroa, Ruatoria and Wairoa.
ICT staff are making sure the wi-fi connections are not only available for Police, but also for our communities as people congregate in those areas to reconnect with their families and friends.
This has led to the network getting overloaded in some cases, but the ICT team on the ground has been able to work around this - a great outcome for Police staff and our communities.