Comms plans


Continuing in the theme of military concepts in civilian life from our last blog entry, this post is about communications. I think I can honestly say that in military operations, communications is always one of the top items critiqued during an after action review. Even if all objectives were met, there seems to be some sort of communications issue that made reaching those objectives that much harder. A well thought out communications plan makes recovering from those issues less burdensome and lessens their impact on mission accomplishment.

The military typically uses the acronym PACE: Primary, Alternate, Contingency, and Emergency. While it may seem as if these are just four names for four communications methods, it goes a bit deeper. Ideally, communications methods are selected from most expedient for the mission to least expedient. They should also be as distinct as possible from each other in order to give the greatest chance of the other methods working if the primary fails. For example, you wouldn’t necessarily want to just have four different VHF radio channels as your PACE, because if the radio itself fails, you’ve just lost all four possible methods of communications. However, if you had a VHF radio channel (very expedient), a satellite phone (distinct from the radio, not quite as fast, but still relatively expedient), a cellular phone (not as secure, and therefore less desirable than VHF or SAT, but still workable), and a courier (not at all expedient, but functional in an emergency) as your PACE, you have established four distinct methods of communications that are not contingent upon each other for function. Obviously there are other considerations, such as operational security and availability of communications methods, but ideally, you should shoot for distinct methods.

Now, in the civilian world you may not have access to all the various communications methods the military does, but you can still use the principles when setting up your plan. Cellular phones are probably the most common form of civilian communication, but even within that realm, you have the option of text or voice communication. In an emergency, or in an area where there are many people all trying to talk at the same time (such as a hurricane evacuation, or just a large sporting event), text communication often has a better chance of success than a voice call because it doesn’t require a constant connection with the cell tower, and you don’t have dozens of people around you talking over you and garbling your transmission. For example, during the Hurricane Rita evacuation in Houston, cellular voice calls were almost impossible to make due to the large number of people flooding the towers, but texts and burst voice, such as the Sprint push-to-talk phones, remained reliable throughout. For those involved in Amateur Radio, your options are a little more extensive, with VHF, UHF, HF, and SAT voice and text available, depending on your license level. Other options include Family Radio Service and General Mobile Radio Service (FRS/GMRS), or Citizen’s Band (CB) radios, but these are often limited in range and subject to extensive traffic during an event. As always, landline phone, email, and courier remain older, but still viable options depending on your situation.

A schedule for communication – set by time or waypoint – can help make sure your team stays in contact and can assist in determining whether or not you need to begin the transition to your alternate communications methods. If you choose not to use a communications schedule, at the very least you need to determine and publicize the criteria that guide the switch from your primary to your alternate methods of communications. If you are dealing with a fixed command post or something similar, they should be monitoring all four methods at any given time. If you are dealing with another team, however, they may not have all four methods up at all times, whether due to licensure constraints, battery preservation, or simply trouble with one of their systems. Knowing the agreed upon criteria, such as a missed comms window, will spur them to begin contingency procedures.

Essentially, while you may not have all the different modes of communication as a civilian that the military does, the key is to recognize the possible weak link in your plan and adjust accordingly to minimize its effects. Whether by bringing that annoying little FRS radio with you in addition to your phone, or just planning a check-in schedule and rally point for your family if you anticipate getting split up during a planned or emergent event, having a good communications plan can go a long way towards peace of mind and mission success.


About the author:

Woody is an 11 year veteran of the US Coast Guard, where he has served at various units including the International Training Division and Maritime Security Response Team. He has held qualifications including Deployable Team Leader/Instructor, Direct Action Section Team Leader, and Precision Marksman – Observer. He has deployed/instructed on five continents and served in quick reaction force roles for multiple National Special Security Events in the US. He can be contacted on Facebook and Instagram. Any opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the US Coast Guard or the US Government.

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