Communicating in Remote Places
by Michael J. Manyak, M.D., FACS
Effective communication is essential on an expedition whether it is between trip members, to your operations base, or to the outside world. Poor field communications have plagued us all at times and despite advanced technology, one cannot rely on smart phones alone. Dr. Christian Macedonia FN ’98, project manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is with us to discuss field communication. Chris is on the medical faculty at Johns Hopkins and a recently retired active duty US Army Colonel. We share fond memories of trying to upload satellite images from a rolling deck in the North Atlantic on the Titanic salvage expedition.
MJM: How important is a communication plan on expedition?
CM: A communication plan is important for even a simple local hike. Start with alerting someone that you will be in a remote location and arrange for emergency contact. Complicated expeditions need a detailed communication plan with standard and alternate radio frequencies and laminated cards with instructions for use of satellite communications equipment. On international travel it is prudent to notify the embassy of your plans and how to reach you in an emergency.
MJM: Can you comment from your experience about the need for communication among expedition members?
CM: I’ve been in many remote and dangerous locations both on expedition and in the military and have seen things deteriorate when communication is poor. Interestingly, I have noted the power of communication at its best when spoken words are fewest. The quality of the non-verbal communications can reflect how well a unit or expedition is running and is based on mutual respect. A simple head nod or reassuring look is often more important than any sophisticated satellite phone. We are only generations removed from our hunter-gatherer forbears who lived or died on hunting parties through cooperation and understanding even the most subtle of facial movements.
MJM: What is the biggest challenge of communication in a remote place?
CM: Terrain has the greatest influence on the quality of telecommunications. Common personal communications equipment is designed for urban environments and clear line of site. Remote places have sparse cellular coverage and steep terrain can block overhead satellite networks. In a deep valley or cave communication is very limited beyond what is in sight.
MJM: Can you comment on the expanded use of cell phones in remote areas?
CM: No single communications device is perfect for all conditions but a cell phone configured for the local mobile network is the most common and versatile communications tool. It provides communication and also acts as a homing beacon. Mobile phones provide search and rescue teams with a valuable means to find you. But if you don’t want to be found, these devices can be a liability. Mobile phones are limited by terrain and atmospheric conditions. New technologies combining both cell and satellite capabilities are emerging.
MJM: What applications for mobile phones are of interest to explorers?
CM: It is important to remember that SMS texting is available over a broader range than voice or data and may be available when a voice call is not. A location stamp app allows you to update or log your location. Apps that provide location and compass headings are very helpful to orient satellite equipment. A weather app can warn about deteriorating conditions that affect your safety and communications.
MJM: What about satellite phones?
CM: First, make sure you need a satellite phone. These are expensive to operate and don’t always work better than a cell phone. It all depends on your location. You should check with people with experience in the area because some satellite phone providers cover only certain regions. Some services are optimized for maritime use and others for terrestrial use. It is very important to select the right plan depending on your needs for voice, data, and video transmission.
MJM: What about two-way radios?
CM: FM communications are very handy in the field, the technology is proven and operating cost cheap. FM communicators are limited to internal communications with individuals monitoring the chosen frequency within range which is line of sight unless repeaters are used. Sophisticated systems can cost more than satellite phones but provide long duration, high-quality internal communications. If the radios are a survival tool ensure they are designated “Mil Spec” which stands for “meets military specifications” for shock, drop, and weather durability. Privacy is an issue unless using an encrypted communicator.
MJM: What signaling methods are useful for safety?
CM: An unbreakable mirror is a handy tool for daily hygiene and for signaling aircraft if lost. Powerful LED torches are versatile and used as signaling devices. Radio distress beacons can and do save lives. EPIRBs are emergency position-indicating radio beacons used at sea. ELTs are emergency locator transmitters used in aviation. PLBs are personal locator beacons used for terrestrial location remote from 911 access. Not all expeditions need these devices and a backup mobile or satellite phone is advisable because search and rescue teams often desire more than just your location. One major advantage of distress beacons over cellular devices is the automated activation feature. Some are activated by salt water or impact. Such beacons on aircraft and vessels may be required by law.
This article was published in The Explorers Journal
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