The telecommunications industry and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) have teamed up to use mobile phone technology to save lives in Sierra Leone.

Using an innovative location-targeted SMS system called the Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA), the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society (SLRCS), with support from the British and Icelandic Red Cross Societies, will be able to reach 36,000 people an hour at the touch of a button with warnings of impending fires, floods, or outbreaks of disease.

Sierra Leone is only the second country in the world to launch the TERA SMS system, where it is being delivered in partnership with the country’s largest mobile operator Airtel. The project has been given the full backing of the country’s Vice President, Office of National Security and Ministry of Health and Sanitation.

Sierra Leone’s Vice President, Chief Samuel Sam Sumana, explains: “Last year our country was hit by the worst cholera outbreak in 40 years. Simple information could have helped prevent some of the 300 deaths we suffered. We know Sierra Leone has a poor health record and the government is committed to doing something about that. Working with the Sierra Leone Red Cross, Airtel, Comium and SierraTel, we can make sure people are armed with the knowledge and tools they need to protect themselves and their families.”

Launching in April, the Red Cross and Airtel aim to reach 1 million people nation-wide in its first month with life-saving information on preventing malaria ahead of World Malaria Day on April 25th. Approximately 16,000 children and adults die from malaria each year in Sierra Leone, making it the country’s largest preventable cause of death. A year of monthly prevention campaigns has been planned covering everything from cholera, tuberculosis and child health information to flood and fire prevention advice.

“This system is a real life-saver,” says Abubakarr Tarawallie, director of communications, SLRCS. “We can use it to warn people when emergencies or outbreaks start and to give them vital information on preventing diseases like malaria and cholera. Even better, the system is two-way so we can quickly assess the areas of greatest need after an emergency and respond to requests for information on a large-scale. Harnessing technology in this way is really helping the Red Cross to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our aid operations.”

Airtel’s managing director RVS Bhullar adds: “No other disaster warning system is capable of reaching such large numbers of people in such a short space of time and in such a direct, personal way as SMS. Airtel is delighted to be part of this project and to put our network to good use working with the Red Cross and the government to have a real positive impact on our customers’ health and well being.”

Two additional mobile operators – Comium and SierraTel – have also agreed to issue SMS on behalf of the Sierra Leone Red Cross, increasing the number of people reached to 1.5 million.

TERA was first developed in response to the devastating 2010 Haitian earthquake by the local mobile operator Trilogy International Partners. Since then, more than 100 million SMS have been sent covering a wide range of topics. In a 2011 evaluation, 95 per cent of those interviewed said Red Cross SMS provided them with practical and useful information, and 90 per cent reported changing something in their life as a result of these SMS. The IFRC is now aiming to launch TERA in 40 countries within the next five years, with regional hubs capable of sending out disaster warnings to millions of people.