Communication from Off-Property

Ann McCollum
May 2017

Risk management decisions are made days, weeks, and months in advance. This adage is especially true when making communication plans for when your campers leave camp property. Reliable communication away from camp is dependent on plans that are thoughtfully considered well in advance. This article will cover a host of planning considerations essential to effective and reliable communication when your campers are on adventures away from your main camp property.

Plan

A solid plan for communication is critical to managing risk on trips away from camp, whether for a trip around the corner to the zoo or for a trip to the other side of the globe. The campers’ destination and the planned purpose of the communication together inform the elements of your plan. Once purpose and destination are identified, it will be easier to pull together the other elements of the communication plan, which include: the means of communication and related equipment, planned schedule or occurrence, resources,and training.

It is important for all plans to have built-in redundancy for communication. In this day and age, communication necessarily involves technology, including cell phones, computers, and satellite phones. Technology can be extremely efficient and effective in time, person-power, and budget. Ideally, wherever you are, you can pick up your device, login or dial up, and successfully communicate in an instant. However, the ideal is not always realistic. A good rule of thumb in your communication planning is to assume that your technology will fail and plan an alternative accordingly. The use of technology should never replace solid trip planning, staff training, and risk management.
Similar to the importance of having map reading skills when the GPS fails, staff should have the skills and knowledge to manage a situation without having to rely on a call to camp for guidance or help. Sending trained staff who are capable of handling emergencies from first response through evacuation — including the ability and authority to make relevant decisions — is critical, especially when technology fails. While the ideal may be a cell phone call from the accident site directly to camp, it may actually become a staff member creatively realizing the alternative of moving quickly down the trail to the nearest landline or down the road to nearby law enforcement.

Purpose

Before a group leaves camp property, the leaders should know the actual purpose of the communication device they have with them. Are they to use it only for emergencies? Does the communication plan include regular/pre-scheduled “check-ins” to report how the trip is going? Are staff expected to call camp whenever a camper issue arises? I heard a story of a camp counselor leading campers on a day hike in the mountains who used her cell phone to call the program director to ask whether they should continue the trip in light of the developing weather. In this case, the staff member was trained and expected to make such recurrent decisions throughout the day. The program director was miles away and reminded the staff that she was not experiencing the same weather, did not know the condition of the group, and was not equipped with the information to make that decision. She encouragingly instructed the staff member to use her training to assess the weather and make a decision. This scenario is not necessarily one of poor training in weather assessment, but one of not understanding the purpose for carrying the cell phone as part of the camp’s safety protocol.

Staff training should include the purpose of trip communication and where communication fits in the program. Regardless of the purpose of the communication plan, staff need to be well-trained in how to effectuate
that purpose.

Training

Understandably, communication training is perhaps a forgotten element of staff training. Campers, staff, camp administrators, and parents communicate constantly using phones, e-mail, text, and other media. Communication training is a key component in a camp’s overall plan to facilitate ready, efficient, effective communication from off-property. Training will help minimize confusion, rumors, and unnecessary response, among other things. Staff should be trained in the purpose of communication, making and receiving an emergency communication, use and management of equipment, and what I will call “rogue” communication.

First, camp staff must be trained in the purpose of the communication, and this includes training as to the impact of improper or incomplete communication. An untrained staff member may call camp from off-property and in an excited voice leave a message that he will “call back later,” leaving no other information. The effect of such a communication can leave a camp in a panic until the counselor calls back again . . . which he may never do because he became distracted by the fun of the event. Folks back on camp property don’t know if he was communicating an emergency or if he was calling to see if he could buy the campers ice cream.

One of the most important yet forgotten elements of a communication plan is training staff on how to make and/or receive a call or communication. All phone calls to camp should start with the name of the person who is calling and the statement, “This is/is not an emergency.” The call would then proceed accordingly. Training for emergency calls should include training for both sides of the call: the person making the emergency call and any person at camp who might receive the call. Consider what information should be relayed first in an emergency call (after caller’s name): information about specific location and call-back number if available, nature of the emergency, names of specific persons involved, what has been done, whether first responders have been called, the caller’s plan going forward, and what is needed from camp or first responders. Train the caller not to hang up until he is told to hang up. Name, location, nature of the call, and call-back number is the first information relayed, so that if the call is disconnected, the person receiving the call has enough information to initiate a response. Prior to making the call, the caller should have written notes to be prepared to relay all the information concisely and efficiently.

On the other end, any person who might receive an emergency call should be ready to prompt the information from the caller, take notes, know when to disconnect, and know what to do with the information. Scripts for both roles can be immeasurably helpful in an emergency. Camps can create paper forms to enable both sides of the emergency (and non-emergency) communication that are posted next to phones at camp and carried in an emergency kit off-property.

For all communication options, camps have to do their homework and plan ahead to train staff on the equipment’s proper and effective use. A satellite phone can be pretty simple in their use, but it may not seem simple to a staff member who is pulling it out and turning it on for the first time in an emergency. It is important that staff are trained and practiced in the use of the camp’s communication devices.

It also is beneficial to train staff on non-emergency communications including social media. Often, camps enable staff and campers to post trip updates. Training staff and campers (if relevant for your camp) on appropriate content is often an overlooked element of communication. Several summers ago, a school group was on a small ship cruise when a rogue wave hit the ship causing some damage and minor injuries. The passengers, including students, were okay, and the ship turned around to return to port. The students had permission to access social media and posted dramatic and sublime versions of the event for days before the students were reunited with parents. The varied accounts of trauma, inconvenience, and morale were impressive. It is unknown if the variety of accounts caused any unnecessary concern from parents, yet it is not hard to imagine that every camp director reading this is cringing at the thought of answering those calls and settling the resulting parent anxiety.

Similarly, be aware of the “rogue” communication by camper and staff who have “contraband” communication devices on a camp trip (i.e. technology on trip of any sort where such technology is prohibited), which has related results as the social media scenario discussed above. We all know that even if you require campers to leave technology at home during camp, there will always be that one camper... Parents want their child to have a means of communication in a time of need, and honestly, parents want to be able to contact their children. Addressing this scenario can be tricky when trying to manage communication from camp. Regardless of how camps address the “contraband” technology, campers (and staff) need to understand that “secret” communication to their parents or on social media can cause serious problems, and camps need to be ready to address such potentially contradictory communication. In an emergent situation, such as a traffic accident or fire evacuation from camp, or even a non-emergent scenario, such as an exciting lightning storm when campers are safe inside a building, some campers and staff will be bustling to relay the drama on social media. Camps should impress upon campers and staff (and parents) the importance of the delivery of accurate and consistent information, which should come from one source: camp. Campers and staff should be instructed not post or communicate their own versions of a camp event. When they do, camp should be prepared to address rumors and inaccurate information. One way to address the posting/sharing of potential inaccurate communication is for the camp to have a robust, responsive, and reliable plan and vehicle for communication to the camp community.

Communication options

The purpose of the communication and the nature of the destination will inform the camp’s best communication option. Camps must research the equipment, services, and features that meet a balance of their needs in the setting to be used, the skill level and training of the staff using it, the expectations of your parents, and the camp’s budget.

  • Phones continue to be the go-to form of communication when service is available. In our route planning back in the day, we scouted and plotted pay phone locations, houses that had phone lines running to them, packed dimes in our emergency kits, and wrote important phone numbers on the inside of our leather belts. Landlines (true landlines and not a phone connected to the internet/cell service) should not be forgotten when they are available. When scouting a trip (of any sort), it is a good idea to know where a landline can be accessed. (Remember, mobile technology may fail and when that happens, landlines are reliable!) However, if you travel internationally, in many developing countries like India and Nepal, landline systems were so slow to be constructed over time that cellular technology surpassed it and is often more reliable. Cell phones provide a lightweight, albeit often expensive, form of communication through talk and text messaging when service is available. Anyone who has taken a road trip across the country knows that there are frequent pockets where no cell service is available. A trekker can send a text from Everest Base Camp at 17,000 feet in Nepal, but one cannot acquire similar service in Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico. The lack of cell coverage in the mountains, canyons, or less traveled places in the US (including some interstate and other highways throughout the country is not uncommon. When traveling overseas, users will need to subscribe to an international plan or use an unlocked phone and buy a local SIM card at the destination. If you choose the latter option, be ready to speak the language or enlist the help of a local resident to set up your phone, because the local mobile network that your SIM card accesses will provide set-up instructions in the local language.
  • Satellite phones (a.k.a. “sat phones”) provide the next communication option among telephones for low or no cell service locations and have become increasingly accessible and user-friendly in size and cost. There are many options when it comes to using sat phones and there are key considerations.
    • Train staff on the use of sat phones and practice use before heading out (an emergency is not the time to read the sat-phone manual)
    • Ensure the batteries are charged and that you have charging capabilities on your trip (this goes for all technology, more below)
    • Sat phones are not fool-proof: the phone must be able to communicate with an orbiting satellite in order to be of any use, so the user may have to climb out of a canyon or to the top of a hill in order to connect; also, bewareof cloudy days which may block communication
    • Some countries (e.g. India, China, Cuba) limit the use of sat phones: do your research as part of your trip and emergency planning
    •  Include satellite phone service in your budget: service is not always included in ownership (or rental) of a sat phone, and calls can be very expensive. Developing ready and efficient phone skills for use on the sat phone should be part of staff training and practice.
  • Satellite Emergency Notification Devises (“SEND”) provide a communication option that includes messaging through texting, tracking, and emergency messaging or signals. Texting is an effective and available form of communication in remote travel, and like phones, there are service limits. Texting from a cell phone relies on the cell service, which may or may not be available. Like sat phones, Global Positioning System (GPS) or tracking devices (e.g. Delorme, SPOT) rely on orbiting satellites for communication, and many include texting in their service packages. Some SEND devices provide two-way messaging (both sender and receiver can send or reply to a message), and some provide one-way (only one party can send a message) pre-written messaging such as “We’re okay.” One-way messaging is valuable for routine check-ins, but may be lacking in an emergency when communicating the nature of an injury or the equipment and clothing your group needs would facilitate a more effective or efficient rescue. All GPS tracking devices can communicate a group’s location. Some devices have a tracking feature, allowing for folks at camp to follow a group’s progress if the feature is enabled.
  • Personal Locator Beacons (“PLB”s) are exactly what they sound like: they are devices from which a person can transmit via satellite her location to a first responder (i.e. sheriff’s department or backcountry rescue team) in an emergency. PLBs do not have a messaging feature. Not too long ago, a wilderness traveler in Colorado sent multiple PLB signals over several days from various locations in the backcountry. A flurry of social media messages ensued from local first responders imploring the user (or his friends) to stop the signals. It was deduced that the PLB user thought he had a SEND device and thought he was sending a tracking location to friends, rather than an emergency call to which rescuers were responding. PLBs are the technology equivalent of the rock SOS: the signal lets someone know your location in an emergency. PLBs are very valuable when the sole purpose of your communication device is simply to tell someone you need help and where you are.
  • Computers, laptops, tablets (e-mail and social media) are not likely to be utilized for communication in a wilderness setting but could be very valuable for travel in urban travel or “wired” remote settings such as developing countries and well-traveled remote tourist routes. Those traveling for the first time to developing countries will be surprised (impressed?) at the availability of internet services. E-mail is a great form of communication allowing for a narrative, instant, two-way communication. However, e-mail depends on wireless and internet service. While international hosts will go to great lengths to provide internet service to patrons in remote settings (such as a small-town lodge or expedition boat), it is important to remember that internet speeds can be painfully slow and service can be prohibitively expensive. In addition, internet services in such remote settings are not necessarily reliable with regard to internet and power outages.

Needs

Based on your communication purpose and trip destination, the following outline provides questions to consider when acquiring communication equipment or devices:

  • What is the intended primary use of the equipment?
    • Emergency communication? Daily check-in?
  • What features  are important?
    • Two-way communication?
    • Text or voice? If text, are there character limits on messaging? Or limits on number of messages?
    • Built-in GPS?
    • Lightweight?
    • Waterproof?
    • Long battery life?
    • Rechargeable battery?
    • Tracking?
    • Touch screen?
    • Maps included?
  • Is a service subscription required in addition to the equipment?
    • Can service be purchased on a short-term (i.e. monthly) rather than annual basis?
    • Is there an activation fee?
  • How is the device charged and recharged?
  • What is your budget?
    • Can equipment be rented?
    • What is the cost of added service?
  • How user-friendly is the equipment?
  • What technical support is provided with my equipment or service purchase?

Once you make your list and identify how your equipment needs to be employed, you will be better informed when purchasing or renting equipment.

Know how to manage equipment

Equipment management can hinge on one thing: access to power. No matter what device or system you choose, it is important to know how you will keep your communications device powered. Even if your group travels only in urban areas, carrying portable power such as rechargeable battery packs can be very advantageous. Having a lightweight portable battery pack eliminates the need for searching for and stopping near an outlet to charge a device. If your group travels in more remote non-wilderness settings like international villages or desolate highways, or if your trip is vehicle-based, you are likely to have the opportunity to charge your devices through wall outlets, generators, or through a vehicle charging port. If your trips travel in the wilderness or otherwise do not have access to charging through an outlet, charging options include back-up battery packs or solar charging, both of which must be included in your budget and training.

Considerations for keeping devices powered in remote settings include the ability of your stored power to charge the communication device you have chosen. In other words, a battery pack that is capable of charging your iPod may not be capable of charging your satellite phone, so do your research on the appropriate level or portable power. For devices that need more power or for charging multiple devices, you will need a power pack that provides more milliamps (mAh). Similar to planning water availability and food rations, staff will need to plan and ration the use of technology based on their ability to keep devices powered. In addition, if traveling in a developing country, you might have to budget for charging fees, as it is possible the host will charge for the electricity packed into your device. There are tons of options for portable battery packs in all price ranges, sizes, and weight. Don’t forget to pack all the needed cords, cables, and adapters no matter what charging option you choose!

These considerations apply to solar chargers as well. The power needs of your devices will determine the solar panel you purchase and carry, both of which will depend on the availability of sunlight. Assuming groups are moving during the day, users of solar chargers often devise systems to attach their portable solar panels to the outside of a pack, on a raft, or other mount, so that devices are charged and ready for use. Usually, the solar panel can charge to a battery pack as well as directly to a device. There is a great benefit to having the option of stored power for the days when the sun does not shine as brightly.

Conclusion

When planning for a group of campers to leave camp property, whether for a day or a week, whether to an urban environment or remote wilderness, a communication plan should be at the top of your list. The intended purpose of communicating from a trip coupled with the nature of the group’s destination will inform purchase of the right equipment and service, staff training, and the rest of your communication plan.

Ann McCollum is an attorney in New Mexico with a general practice including education and recreation law and has recently completed two terms on the National Standards Commission. Prior to law school, McCollum served summer camp and education programs as a risk management consultant for eight years, was a school and outdoor educator for 18 years, and worked in summer camps.

Relevant ACA Accreditation standards include: OM.11; PD.10; PD.11; PT.9; and PT.10.