The Double-Edged Sword of Email and Mobile Phones

Mobile devices can interfere with effective communications necessary for a… (…)

Technology, in the form of email and smartphones, can help you manage an incident or exercise, but they can create dangerous lapses in communications.

“Team Alpha, this is Safety,” I repeated into the hand-held radio for the third time. No response. Weather conditions were worsening; dusk was upon us, and the vegetation was some of the most challenging my colleagues and I had faced, at least in my 15-year career in Search and Rescue.
I knew where team Alpha was headed. I had met up with them an hour ago. If I couldn’t reach them in the next five minutes, I’d have to route other teams into that mess to look for them. And they weren’t just “Team Alpha.” They were friends of mine, colleagues. Some were former students in the SAR courses I’ve taught.
The Radio Operator couldn’t reach them either, despite his more powerful base radio. Even more perplexing, he said he had no records of them ever heading out to the field. I asked him to scour the Staging and Rehab areas for anyone who’d seen or heard from them. He did better than that; he found Team Alpha, safe.
They were back at base, comfortable and warm. The problem? They’d been using a mobile phone to communicate directly with the Operations Section Chief, and neither the Radio Operator or I were in the loop.
This example is just one of many ways that mobile devices can interfere with effective communications necessary for a safe and effective incident or exercise. Here are some others:
  • Personal mobile numbers and email addresses are used in lieu of dedicated channels, especially early in an incident, and then, when the owner of that device or address goes off duty or into rehab, all the data collected disappears from the incident.
  • While the device’s owner is trying to get some much-needed rest, her phone rings from people who have it on their incident notes or ICS forms, disturbing that rest and delaying message transmission.
  • Photos and other data files transferred from the field or elsewhere to that email address or mobile device is not available to the Planning Section and others who need it for situational awareness and a common operating picture.
Some options I’ve used for providing continuity of communications:
  • If you use multiple communications channels in an incident (WebEOC, email, voice, radio, etc.) either concentrate them in one area or determine which is the primary channel for each asset or contact, so that urgent communications can be quickly routed. Imagine that you send an SMS (text) message to a friend, and they reply by calling your office phone. Technically, they’ve replied, but how are you supposed to know?
  • When using an alternate communications channel, explain why (e.g. no radio contact or cell service at your location) and make sure your primary contact is notified of your status.
  • Consider using functional email addresses, like instead of personal email addresses. This provides continuity across shifts and allows better record keeping during and after the incident.
  • Consider using a phone number from Google Voice (or similar service) that can be easily transferred from device to device during an incident, while still providing the continuity of data and voice communications.
  • Develop procedures and modify forms for Radio Operators (who today manage many devices other than a two-way radio) so they can manage multiple channels and devices efficiently.
  • Develop procedures for Command and General Staff functions so they can quickly assign communications channels and designate phone numbers and email addresses as easily as they can assign a radio to “Team Alpha.”
  • Test these procedures in exercises!
What ideas does your organization use to ensure safe, effective, and ubiquitous communications across multiple platforms?

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