ICT Emergency Response Overview

During the 1999 Kosovo emergency, WFP’s ICT team only had to ensure that each WFP office was compliant with Minimum Security Telecommunications Standards (MISTS), which involved provision of at least one telephone line and one email account that could handle short messages. The total ICT annual budget for all of WFP was also modest at approximately US$1 million.

Role of ICT in emergencies

In recent years WFP has decentralized operations and become more focused on emergency response, and emergencies currently account for roughly 85% of WFP activities. In this environment ICT has become “mission critical” to WFP operations and the scope and usage of ICT have grown dramatically, such that WFP staff whether at HQ, Country and Regional Offices or part of the emergency response teams must be able to perform on-line transactions, track food, transfer high-resolution maps/drawings, make international voice/fax calls and access corporate applications (admin/financial, email), knowledge bases as well as the Internet and Intranet.ICT has also become mission critical for other humanitarian partners in emergencies which have similar requirements to those of WFP. Staff security and the introduction of UN MOSS (Minimum Operating Security Standards), which were updated in April 2009 (see Covering Memo and Policies) have raised the level of awareness of the importance for high level security telecommunications systems and procedures. 

ICT budgets to support these ICT intensive emergency operations have also increased.

This period of increasing demand for ICT infrastructure and services has been accompanied by an equally rapid evolution in technology. WFP’s Information Technology and Facilities Management Division (ODI) has successfully met these challenges and is committed to continue providing high standards of services and the appropriate technology.

In addition to its traditional role of supporting WFP emergencies, as a part of the UN Humanitarian Reform the cluster approach was adopted and WFP has been designated the Global Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) Lead Agency and the “provider of last resort” for emergency telecommunications for all UN agencies and other humanitarian partners. For additional information go to our Inter-agency section.

Aim and scope of the cluster approach

The cluster approach represents a substantial strengthening of “collaborative response”. It is designed to improve the predictability, timeliness and effectiveness of humanitarian response and pave the way for early recovery operations. It also aims to strengthen the leadership and accountability in key sectors where gaps have been identified, which includes emergency telecommunications.

Global level – The cluster approach strengthens system-wide preparedness and technical capacity to respond to humanitarian emergencies. This involves designating global “cluster leads” to be accountable for ensuring predictable and effective inter-agency response and establishing a broader partnership base. Applying the cluster approach at the global level serves to:

  • enhance monitoring, advocacy and, where necessary, standard setting;
  • establish standard operating procedures (SOP) for emergency response;
  • establish and strengthen surge capacity and standby rosters;
  • secure consistent access to appropriately trained technical expertise;
  • establish or improve material stockpiles;
  • improve response capacity through complimentary efforts and pooling of resources.

Country level – The cluster approach improves response capacity by mobilizing UN agencies and on-governmental organizations (NGOs). Each cluster has a designated lead, determined by the Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) and the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT). Applying the cluster approach at country level serves to:

  • identify gaps in key sectors and areas of humanitarian response and ensure well identified and predictable leadership in these sectors and areas;
  • create stronger partnerships among NGOs, international organizations, the Red Cross and ed Crescent Movement, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UN agencies that can address gaps in humanitarian response;
  • strengthen the accountability of cluster leads to the HC for different aspects of the humanitarian response where this is lacking;  
  • improve strategic field-level coordination and prioritization. 

Note: more detailed background information on the cluster approach, including Guidance Notes can be found on the Humanitarian Reform Site

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Assumptions: preparing for multiple emergencies each year

One goal of WFP’s ICT Emergency Preparedness and Response initiative is to define necessary levels of stand-by capacity, ensure there are well trained resources available, and establish procedures for the mobilization of staff and equipment with the capacity to respond to multiple (three to four) large-scale emergencies per year, two of which are concurrent. WFP’s Rapid Response Working Group (RRWG) has defined a set of assumptions upon which to base WFP’s overall emergency response planning and design, including those for ICT.


  • Corporate emergencies include augmented emergencies in countries where WFP has an existing Country Office as well as start-up emergencies where there is no WFP presence.
  • One augmented emergency and one start-up emergency will happen simultaneously. 
  • Each emergency is composed of one Country Office and six sub-offices and falls under UN Security Phase III.
  • Each emergency will have in excess of 500,000 beneficiaries. 
  • WFP will be asked to lead the Logistics and Emergency Telecommunications Clusters in each corporate emergency. 
  • International staff will be required for surge and emergency deployment rather than local staff due to their mobility (UN Laissez-Passer/ability to be transferred), language skills, range of expertise and their strong working contacts with HQ rather than Country Office contracts. 
  • In augmented emergencies, existing in-country staff reduces the need for additional international WFP staff while start-up emergencies will require more international WFP staff.  

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Defining emergencies and Emergency Preparedness and Response

In WFP a “corporate emergency” is defined as one that requires a global response such as the 2004 Tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake or the 2006 Lebanon crisis and will involve five or more operational areas and an impacted population in excess of 500,000. For ICT specifically, an “emergency” is a rapid deployment that requires additional, substantial, and often scarce resources. While ICT has well established standard emergency response procedures, they still may need to be adapted to the ICT framework and governance structure based on the type and size of the required ICT response, in the same manner in which WFP as a whole responds to the emergency or if there is an inter-agency response.

Emergencies are classified based on type and scale/size. See table below.

TypeScale/ SizeResponsibility
Sudden onsetRoutine, level 1Country office
Slow onsetMedium, level 2Regional office
Complex (can be sudden or slow)Large, level 3Corporate office


Emergency Type

From a practical and operational viewpoint, ICT responds to the following situations or types of emergencies.

Sudden disasters (or sudden-onset emergencies) – natural or technological disasters that damage crops and food stocks, disrupt food supply and marketing systems and/or disrupt economic activities and livelihoods.

Slow-onset crises – drought, crop failure or severe economic crises that erode livelihoods and undermine food supply systems and hence affect the ability of vulnerable households to meet their food needs and the ability of their of communities to support them.

Complex emergencies – conflict and widespread social and economic disruption resulting in severe humanitarian crises and food insecurity. Complex emergencies can be either sudden disaster or slow onset.

Note: further definition of WFP emergency types can be found in the Executive Board document Defining Emergencies (Feb 2005) or, more succinctly in the WFP Programme Guidance Manual (PGM). In addition, WFP’s preparedness and response framework can be found in Emergency Preparedness and Response Framework Strategies (2003).

Scale of Emergency

In all cases of activation, ICT follows the WFP Activation Protocol for Responding to Corporate Emergencies. However, ICT may decide internally to adjust the size of the emergency response, due to circumstances unique to ICT such as the activation of the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC). WFP’s Information Technology Division (ODI) has developed project management terminology that defines the sizes of emergencies as follows:

Routine – localized, Level 1 WFP emergency operation, with a budget of less than US$500,000 and availability of in-country resources;

Medium – regional, Level 2 emergency with a budget of US$500,000 to US$1 million and additional staffing needs that can be met within the region;

Large – widespread, Level 3 emergency affecting one or more countries with a budget of more than US$1 million and requiring additional staff that are not available within the region.

All above emergencies usually involve Inter-agency activities, in many cases through the provision of Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) services.

In addition to type and size of response, ICT considers a range of other factors in classifying its emergency response including:

  • ICT budget;
  • number of additional ICT staff needed to implement the project and their availability;
  • requirement for the provision  of the ETC/Inter-Agency services;
  • number of countries and/or regions involved;
  • UN security phase;
  • availability of local capacity.

ICT activation and emergency governance structures require response decisions to be based on all of the variables, including emergency type and response size. Decisions are made only when all elements are factored in. To support the decision-making process, ICT has developed a simple emergency sizing tool spreadsheet that provides a checklist to help ICT frame the appropriate response.


Emergency Phases

The preparedness, response and deployment phases of an emergency operation can be discussed as distinctly separate activities. Ideally, each phase should rely on the work of the previous phase and create the groundwork for the next. However, in reality, the distinction among the phases is often blurred. This is particularly true in the case of sudden-onset disasters where often the assessment, design and implementation of the emergency occur simultaneously.

Nevertheless, it is crucial to understand the distinctions among the phases and their individual activities in order to be able to plan and act effectively in the emergency itself.

An emergency response requires much more than providing aid within a theatre of operations. It is a process that requires a broad view in order to ensure a timely, effective and efficient humanitarian response. The following interlinked activities must be woven into any comprehensive understanding of an emergency cycle.

Preparedness phase

During which anticipative actions, arrangements and procedures are undertaken to ensure a rapid, effective and appropriate response.

Alert phase

Initiated when conditions for a potential emergency become apparent. The situation on the ground is evaluated to determine the staff and equipment that would be required should an emergency be declared.

Response phase

When there is deployment of human and technical resources to the scene of an emergency. ICT is called upon to set up or strengthen a communications network in order to support humanitarian operations and the work and security of UN staff in the ground. This phase can be further divided into:

  • design and plan – the operation’s concept is developed and written, resources mobilized and input given to the emergency operation (EMOP) or special operation (SO) appeal process;
  • deployment – required ICT infrastructure and services are activated;
  • handover – start-up team gives control to the team that will remain in the operation. This can be an ongoing process during the emergency or can include closure of the emergency operation.

Long-term planning – begins at the same time as the response design-and-plan phase. A more permanent ICT structure is designed and local and international staff are recruited or extended.

Although these phases appear to be sequential, in the case of ICT response, they can occur simultaneously. For example, an alert state does not always escalate into an emergency response. While an alert should be preceded by preparedness activities, this cannot always be the case, particularly in sudden disasters. Similarly, for sudden disasters, there may not be time for a proper field assessment before the Project Plan is being prepared.

The chart below provides an example of a  simple overview of the ICT Emergency Cycle and each element displayed is further defined in the text of this chapter.

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Download: WFP Emergency Preparedness and Response processes chart