Tactical Notes – Communication

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Communication Failure is Not an Option

In a tactical situation, communication failure quickly degenerates into mission failure. In a true emergency, communication is a literal lifeline. Without communication, there’s no coordination between members of the group and with outside support.

Confusion occurs, which results in lost timelines and mismanagement of resources. Safety is compromised, creating the possibility of injuries or fatalities.

Sounds like serious stuff, but then we’ve already mentioned that staying safe is the major goal here.

Planning for Communication in the Event of an Emergency is Good Planning!

Assess your commmunication strengths and weaknesses. Probe all possibilites. You want no surprises in the event an emergency occurs on your trip.

Communication Reality

Urban Emergency Response

Cellular phone communication is taken for granted in an urban environment. Most everyone has a cell phone, or has access to someone who has. A 911 emergency call generates an immediate response by law enforcement and emergency services personnel.

Bystanders are often present to render some degree of aid until the professionals arrive.

You’re Not in the City Anymore

The situation is quite different in an outdoor environment. There may be no cell phone service, or time may be required to reach a location where cell service is available. The final (often only) option is to have someone hike out to report the emergency.

Don’t expect to see other hikers in the area. It may be days before you see another person.

If you’re able to reach 911 emergency services, even by cell phone, expect a significant time delay before someone physically shows up at your location.

The more remote, rural, or isolated you are, the longer emergency response will take!

Many factors dictate search and rescue or emergency aid response:

  • Resource Call-Out Time– It takes time to call out and stage emergency response ground and/or air resources.
  • Trail Location, Terrain and Travel– Are you close to a populated area, highway, or road? How many miles in on the trail are you? How rough is the terrain?
  • Weather and time of day– Poor weather and visibility slows everything down, and may limit the use of certain resources.

Trip Planning Considerations

This is the reality. If this information is a concern to you, consider your choice of trails. Have a discussion with the ranger station or park office. Check other information resources. There are hard trails and there are easy trails.

You might decide to select an easier, shorter trail within verified cell phone range that’s more accessible from roads or populated areas in the event something goes wrong.

Plan accordingly. Be aware of the level of self-sufficiency that’s required when hiking remote trails. Carry the right equipment, and make hiking safety the first priority. Don’t assume that you’re always going to be within cell phone range.

Don’t adopt the mindset that you can expose yourself or your group to extreme risk, and if things go wrong, a cell phone call to 911 saves the day.

Who Do You Call?

Calling 911 Emergency by cell phone (law enforcement, search and rescue, and medical aid) activates assistance in the United States. In most states, the local Sheriff’s Office or law enforcement agency coordinates searches and rescues in their jurisdictions.

Assess the jurisdiction you expect to travel in. Verify the best way to contact them, and measure their response capability. Note: This is especially important if you’re in another country!

Other Types of Communication

We’ve discussed cell phones, the pros, cons, and limitations. Let’s look at some other, no less important, types of communication:

  • Communication with each other, in the event someone gets separated from the rest of the group.
  • Communication with ground searchers or search aircraft. If they can’t see or hear you, they can’t help you.
  • Communication with passers-by. Passers-by could be other hikers, other recreationists, vehicles on a distant highway, or anyone else that’s in a position to see or hear your communication attempt.

How and when to communicate in an emergency can be found on Signal for Help, otherwise continue to the next page, “Using a Signal Mirror”.