20 years of saving and changing lives through connectivity

The World Food Programme (WFP)’s IT and Telecommunications team celebrates two decades of providing emergency connectivity services in hostile and remote environments

Michael Dirksen wins the ‘FITTEST turns 20 Resilience Award’. Photo: WFP Photo Library

Several generations of WFP’s Fast IT & Telecommunications Emergency & Support Team (FITTEST) reunited in the UAE on its 20th anniversary to reflect on past achievements and to look to the future of humanitarian response, where technology will play a critical role as the world struggles with increasingly complex emergencies. FITTEST IT Emergency Coordinator Michael Dirksen, honoured with a Resilience Award, talks about spending 15 years being first on the scene during natural disasters and conflicts, and setting up critical communications so that assistance can be delivered to those who need it most.

Michael Dirksen, originally from Holland, is sitting in a large outdoor tent that had been swiftly set up the day before. The morning celebrations, punctuated by laughs and tears, have finished and guests from all over the world filter out into the sunshine to browse the technology fair showcasing solutions FITTEST deploys in humanitarian emergencies. Behind him is a large blue screen over a stage emblazoned with “FITTEST turns 20”. Amongst deafening cheers from the audience — made up of senior WFP staff, colleagues and friends — he has just received the FITTEST Resilience Award.

“I see the Iraq mission in the mirror every day.”

It is well deserved for someone who has dedicated his career to travelling to dangerous countries supporting humanitarian efforts. But Michael has experienced his fair share of hardship from day one. In the early stages of the Iraq conflict, FITTEST were deployed to provide the communications infrastructure that enabled all other UN agencies to operate in the country. On his very first mission to Iraq in 2003 as Senior IT Emergency Coordinator for FITTEST, Michael was badly injured when a suicide bomber drove an explosives truck into the UN headquarters in Baghdad, killing 22 humanitarians. Michael returned to his job just a few weeks after the incident and remains unphased by his injuries, although admits that this mission remains his most memorable: “I see it in the mirror every day”.

Destruction caused by the Canal Hotel Bombing in Baghdad on 19 August 2003. Photo: WFP Photo Library

Over the past two decades, FITTEST has conducted more than 1,500 missions across 130 countries. From conflicts, earthquakes and tsunamis, to health epidemics and famine, the team has deployed to some of the world’s most hostile and remote locations to provide humanitarians and affected populations with life-saving communications.

Michael explains that, in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster or conflict, the first questions asked by people affected by emergencies and humanitarian responders is often ‘can I use my mobile phone?’ and ‘where can I get connectivity?’. For affected communities, being connected means checking if family are safe and being empowered to make decisions. For humanitarian responders, it means ensuring staff in the field are safe and providing the communication that allows the delivery of aid and assistance.

“It’s an adventurous job and you never know what’s around the corner. At the same time, it’s a job where you can assist humanity. I think that’s the cool part actually.”

This is the background against which Michael has worked since he joined FITTEST 15 years ago. As a FITTEST senior telecommunications specialist and IT emergency coordinator, he has deployed with toolbox in hand to over 50 countries around the world including Peru, Mongolia, Burundi and Sudan. “It’s an adventurous job and you never know what’s around the corner. At the same time, it’s a job where you can assist humanity. I think that’s the cool part actually”.

WFP FITTEST and partners deploying to Haiti in 2010. Photo: WFP Photo Library

It is clear from the way Michael talks about his colleagues that one of the most important factors that has underpinned the FITTEST spirit is the strength and support of the team. When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, FITTEST was deployed to Tacloban as part of the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) where the team set up data services and established a secure communications network used by over 6,000 humanitarians. Together with partners, Michael and the FITTEST team achieved extraordinary results in the face of widespread devastation and a highly complex emergency, “because we work so well as a team, and that makes me proud,” he says.

“My wife knows what it is like to be a humanitarian and has seen me in action in Haiti. She understands what I do and that keeps us together.”

As we are talking, Michael smiles down at a message he has just received from his wife and daughter congratulating him on the news of his award. In just a week, Michael will travel back to Holland to celebrate Christmas and his daughter’s birthday with his family. “My daughter loves seeing the pictures that I bring home from all over the world, especially if there are animals in them!”. He admits that it’s not easy being away from his family for long periods of time, but their support enables him to commit to his work with FITTEST. “I met my wife while on mission in Haiti in 2010 where she was a camp nurse for the International Humanitarian Partnership (IHP). She knows what it is like to be a humanitarian and has seen me in action in Haiti. She understands what I do and that keeps us together,” he says.

As the crowds move on, Michael is swept up into a group gathered around the 20 years of FITTEST memory book (pictured). Excitedly, they spot the pages that highlight their missions, their efforts, their teams and the impact they have made. As they stand there together poring over the book, it is clear to see that FITTEST is not a team but a family. They believe in what they do and who they are. For all they have done in the past and all they will achieve in the future, they should be very proud.

Michael and Edisher Giorgadze browse the ‘FITTEST turns 20’ anniversary book. Photo: WFP Photo Library

Written by Elizabeth Millership, Senior IM and Communications Associate, WFP TEChnology Division

For more on FITTEST, follow Facebook @wfp.fittest

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WFP FITTEST

WFP FITTEST

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WFP’s Fast IT and Telecommunications Emergency and Support Team (FITTEST) is a team of IT emergency preparedness and response specialists.