A ‘sparky’ in the action

Ryan Twittey on coordinating the telecommunications response in the Cyclone Idai emergency

Suzanne Fenton
World Food Programme Insight


Ryan Twittey, Emergency Telecommunications Cluster Coordinator for the Cyclone Idai response in Mozambique. Photo: WFP/Suzanne Fenton

“You northern hemisphere guys get so excited about stars. At home we get this every night,” says Ryan Twittey, Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) Coordinator for the Cyclone Idai response in Mozambique in his usual say-it-like-it-is way. For him, home is Australia, land of the outback and big blue skies.

Although he is distinctly unimpressed by the luminous constellations above him, the rest of the ETC team have their necks snapped back, looking up and rhapsodizing about the undeniably spectacular Southern African sky. After another 14-hour working day, this is the entertainment in Beira.

It’s Ryan’s last day as ETC Coordinator for the response and he’s half-jokingly counting down the minutes until his replacement has his boots on the ground. “Yeah, I was nervous at the start, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d have preferred to have the IT knowledge behind me because at the end of the day if someone comes to you and says ‘Fix it’, it doesn’t feel good if you can’t. But we’ve got a pretty good toolbox here, so that was good. The team is great.”

That’s certainly true: his team, informally known as the dream team, has the most experienced — and most fun — partners from Ericsson Response, the Government of Luxembourg and NetHope.

Locals help Ryan get the vehicle out of the mud on the way back from Grudja. Photo: WFP Photolibrary

“I don’t mind the first three, four weeks [of an emergency] when it’s go-go-go and you’re getting stuff done. When it starts to slow down, and it’s all about reports and people wanting other stuff, yeah, it’s a good time to hand over.” He grins broadly. “I’m more operational than political. I’d certainly do this again, but I’d rather be in the first wave and be in the action.”

His preference to be in the action is unsurprising — if you met him you’d understand. Ryan is a proper Aussie — down to earth, direct and self-deprecating, with a dry sense of humour and a Crocodile Dundee hat. Even his dog is called Dingo. It’s taken about three weeks to pin him down to do this interview — he dislikes being in the spotlight and is happy with his day job as a ‘sparky’ as he refers to himself. It’s not entirely accurate, he’s actually a senior energy specialist with WFP’s Fast IT and Telecommunications Emergency and Support Team (FITTEST), but it’s testament to his nature that he describes himself that way.

Ryan was certainly in the action in Mozambique. Arriving in Maputo just one day after Cyclone Idai hit, he spent two hours in WFP’s country office in the capital before jumping in a car headed to Beira as the airport was closed. “There was equipment and luggage everywhere. We started a two-day drive to Beira and got three-quarters of the way before the road washed out so we went to Chimoio [further west] and flew back to Maputo and then flew on to Beira. It was a bit frustrating, to be honest. We were trying to go the quickest route and ended up taking the longest,” he shrugs.

He found places to sleep along the way and once he got to Beira, got a room in a hotel in town. “Well, yeah but my room had no roof so it was a bit open air and there was about four inches of water on the floor — but the bed was made and half dry.”

The ETC has restored vital telecommunications to enable the humanitarian response in Mozambique. Photo: WFP/Suzanne Fenton

The early days of the emergency — just three weeks ago but feels like months — were chaotic and so intense it’s all a bit of a blur to him now. Humanitarians had descended on Beira from around the globe and everyone — Ryan included — was working flat out to get communications up and running. Scores of journalists overran the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) at Beira airport, the epicentre of the response, putting massive pressure on the fragile bandwidth as they tried to upload footage of the devastation the cyclone had left behind.

“There was so much [stuff] going on, setting up in the EOC and trying to figure out what was happening. The hardest part was working out the information available and what we were going to do, figuring out the scale of the response and how we should respond, what we needed to get in and how. It’s only now (three weeks in) that we have a real idea. It was difficult for organizations to access remote locations, so even though we [ETC] were ready, we were waiting for everyone else with limited information coming from the field.”

“There were times when you felt like you weren’t doing enough but there wasn’t a lot else you could do until the humanitarian community got out [of Beira] and started setting up camps and bases in the field.”

Of all this, it’s the scale of the flooding that he’ll remember most. “I haven’t seen that kind of flooding before. It was like an ocean, over 100 km wide: the amount of water was unbelievable.”

‘The amount of water was unbelievable,’ says Ryan describing the flooding. Photo: WFP/Suzanne Fenton

Although the Cyclone Idai response will be a relatively short emergency, Ryan’s been impressed with the way the whole cluster has worked, and happy with the support and coordination from the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) — an example of how it should work everywhere.

An electrical field mechanic, Ryan is currently working on his Master’s in sustainable energy, and this is where is passion is evident and where he sees failings in the current response system.

“In the context of the ETC, we send out hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment to connect the whole humanitarian community in an emergency and it’s literally, and I mean literally, relying on a 20-dollar power cable hardwired to a switchboard. This is the biggest point of failure. We need investment in becoming more self-sufficient power-wise, investing in staff and equipment,” he says.

“We make it work, but it seems like a point of failure that no one cares about it. This is my passion; that’s what I know from the ground up. If this was a team of power experts and doing the same thing as the ETC but with power…” he shakes his head and tails off, baffled by the apparent lack of interest in power, the one thing that enables everything else.

He cheers up at the mention of family. His wife, children and Dingo currently living in Johannesburg are all moving to Dubai in the next few weeks so he’s happy about that. His two boys — both with platinum blonde hair — are the wallpaper on his phone. “Mine used to be like that but I call it mouse grey now,” he says, ruffling his hair. He pauses for effect. “I was standing on a roof in Karachi, you know, just waiting for something to happen, when these hawks were flying about and going for my hair. That’s when I started calling it mouse grey.” He’s laughing again, fazed by nothing.

For someone who dislikes being interviewed, he tells a pretty good story.

After a month on the ground in hot and sticky Mozambique, and two more weeks conducting some electrical work for WFP, what is he looking forward to the most? “Seeing my family,” he doesn’t skip a beat. “I’ll go through Johannesburg on the way home and by the end of the month they’ll be in Dubai.” He smiles. “Are we done?!” He does a mini fist pump. His delight is clear.

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