AUTHOR: DR DOMINIC QUIGLEY
Here we discuss the importance of communication whilst on expedition: how to perform this appropriately and effectively, both within the team and with the wider world. We will outline some principles of face-to-face communication and leadership skills, before moving on to discuss technological communication devices, specifically looking into their uses and appropriateness whilst on expedition. This will help to guide you in how to effectively engage with your team members, and also recognise when and how you will need to contact those outside of your expedition team, whether that be friends, family, or the emergency services.
What is the importance of communication?
When thinking about expeditions, good communication is fundamental throughout the entirety of the endeavour; from planning to execution as well as an effective debrief on returning. Having good face-to-face or interpersonal communication can determine whether or not the team works well together, whether you are all working for the same common goal, and ultimately the success of the whole expedition. It can instil confidence within the group and individuals, ensuring that they will be valued, respected and heard, making them more likely to highlight areas of concern throughout the expedition.
Communication methods in themselves will also make up a separate, vital, part of your planning stages. You will need to ensure that you and the rest of the team all have suitable means of communication with the world outside of the expedition and that, importantly, everybody is trained in how to use it. This will need to be a carefully discussed topic, as certain means of communication may have severe limitations depending on where you are going and some may even be illegal in certain locations.
During the planning stage of the expedition it is important to consider the two types of communication, internal and external communication, and when these may be required throughout the journey.
Internal communication will be the everyday communication between members of the group on expedition. This will be used to identify goals and objectives, relay instruction and directions, and resolve conflict or discrepancies. It is recognised that teams with strong communication skills are better equipped to adapt to changing circumstances and plan more effectively by ensuring trust, confidence and safety (1). You will need to discuss and agree as a team how best to communicate whilst on expedition and who will be responsible for giving overall direction to the group.
You may also want to plan for communication styles to change, whether that be during a training exercise or should something go wrong, and how everyone will be expected to communicate following this. A worthwhile endeavour is assigning buddies between the group: these do not have to be close friends. However, someone’s assigned buddy is responsible for checking in on them each day and communicating issues, conflicts, or problems to the leader should the participant be too tired or embarrassed to do so themselves.
External communication is the communication your group/expedition will have with the outside world whilst away, including with team members ‘back at base’ or in their home country. This will be one of the key planning steps as everyone may need to have their own form of communication and understand the limitations with it. Depending on where you are going and who is in your group, certain members may need to undergo additional training to use specific communication tools or technologies.
Within the planning stages of an expedition, it is important to develop or be aware of appropriate guidelines for the below communications. The appropriate modality of communication in terms of technology should also be considered. External communication on expedition may comprise of:
- Routine communication: updates to family and friends, social media use or blog posting
- Checkpoint communication: when during the expedition the group is specifically detailed to check in with home
- Emergency communication: only to be used in emergency situations
- Backup communication: what to do should communication tools be lost or damaged
To further aid in emergency communication, when planning you will need to ensure everyone has printed and digital copies on their person of the items below and that the group leader has copies for everyone of the most vital documents (2). It is worth reinforcing that digital copies and printed copies should be taken in case of missing/stolen kit, or lack of electricity/internet access.
- The British Embassy in the countries you are travelling to
- Emergency family or friends contact details
- Insurance details (including policy number and contact details)
Internal Communication on Expedition
Internal communication will encompass all forms of communication within the team. This includes:
- Face-to-face (verbal and non-verbal)
- Written including paper-based, text message or email
- Radio communications
- Whistles and other emergency communication (smoke, light, etc.)
During the expedition you will assign a group leader, although be prepared for others in the group to take on greater or lesser leadership roles during distinct episodes of the expedition (i.e. preparatory, in-country, returning, emergency) (3). This person(s) will be in charge of relaying the goals and objectives for the hour, day, or week to the group and ensuring regular check-in with the team. They may also be responsible for communicating changes in plans, or resolving conflict within the group. To do this, we would recommend using specific communication tools such as:
- SMART when defining goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) – this allows you to create and communicate specific goals to the team with clear timeframes and actions.
- Active listening when involved in disputes – by using verbal and physical communication to show you are listening during a discussion.
- Chunking-and-checking in conversations/plans containing lots of information – this allow you to check that everyone is following the plan, despite the length of the information that may need to be relayed.
- Negotiation when dealing with conflict resolution – this will help you to reach a compromise more quickly.
When discussing with the group, this should be done face-to-face at the beginning of the day, but may require radio communications, texts, or emails throughout the day/activity. As such, all team members should understand the basics of radio communications if this is what you intend to use.
The team leader may be responsible for communication during training exercises and emergency situations. Generally, training exercises should be clearly communicated and outlined with phrases such as “this is a training exercise”, and safety phrases should be set out in the event of an accident – i.e. “we have a live accident”. Should an accident occur, team members should be aware of emergency communications (such as whistles, smoke, or light) and communication tools such as SBAR (situation, background, assessment, recommendation) and METHANE (used specifically in declaring and managing major incidents (4)), as these may be vital in effectively communicating the situation between members.
It is not only important to think about what is being communicated, but also who needs to be involved in the communication. If an emergency situation arises, not everyone may need to be involved in the decision-making and some information may need to be restricted from the wider group. This may require a small group separating to discuss it in person, or changing radio frequencies if using hand-held-communication tools. Importantly, you may wish to plan for a ‘communications black-out’ in certain scenarios, such as to ensure safe evacuation of a casualty and the ability to update their family before the wider party, news or social media distributes information.
External Communication on Expedition
Technology will need to be used to communicate with the outside world during your expedition. It is important that you fully assess what types you will need depending on where you are going and what you plan on doing. Family and friends may require regular check-ins and you may want to share your adventure on social media. For this you may need voice, data and messaging capabilities or just some of these functionalities. During the planning stage you will need to define which tools will be used for routine, checkpoint, emergency, and backup communication, based on the limitations you expect to encounter on expedition and of the technology itself. This could include issues with coverage, terrain or environmental/social/legal concerns.
We will discuss some equipment options below, however, it is worth consolidating your knowledge and requirements before going anywhere to ensure you are taking the correct kit.
Mobile phones are great for social media updates, regular communication and even emergency situations, but should not be the only tool of communication you rely on. Network coverage is rapidly improving globally and they can be used almost anywhere in the world, but can be unreliable in less developed/remote areas. By buying an in-country SIM, you may be able to run them affordably whilst away.
However, they are limited by battery life and rely on line-of-sight communication with provider masts. This can mean that if there is no mast close by or if you are in dense jungle, deep valleys, or some other form of coverage, you may have no signal in an emergency. They are known to shut down in extreme temperatures and many will break if dropped, submerged in water or otherwise damaged.
Satellite phones transmit messages to satellites in the Earth’s orbit and relay them back to the designated recipient. There are two main types (Geostationary and Low Earth Orbit) with four main providers, and they work almost anywhere in the world (however only Low Earth Orbit provides coverage in polar regions). They are incredibly beneficial in emergency situations, however, they have significant disadvantages.
Firstly, they are very expensive to use: this may include a cost for the handset, subscription, and usage. They also require direct line-of-sight to the satellites they are using and as such, may not be functioning effectively in dense jungles or within buildings or emergency shelters. Finally, in certain countries they are illegal to possess and use, and may result in criminal convictions. Therefore, make sure you check before you pack one (5,6).
Personal Locator Beacons
Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are devices specifically used in emergency scenarios. They transmit radio signals that are picked up by satellites and ground stations for use in emergency situations only. They have extremely long battery lives and can be used easily in most situations.
However, they can incur costs if activated or subscription fees whilst they are in use and require you to register the device with the provider and in the country you are travelling to prior to your journey. You will also need to update the contacts registered to the device, including those in your party. Finally, some of these devices are not two-way communicators and as such, once activated there is no guarantee that help is coming. On these devices one is also not able to relay the seriousness or the type of help required. Therefore, they should only be used in extreme situations.
Overall, it is vital to recognise the importance of robust communication whilst on expedition. Within your planning stages you should always consider the various types of internal and external communication you and your team are planning to employ, and you should ensure that everyone has suitable training to allow them to utilise whichever form they require effectively. You must also make sure that you have back-up forms of communication, and a plan for when you and your team are planning to check-in with those at home, and how you will do this. This allows your group to be tracked appropriately and will help guarantee your safety whilst on expedition.
Take home messages
- Plan for your internal and external communication needs prior to departure
- Define what forms of communication you will use for:
- Routine communication
- Checkpoint communication
- Emergency communication
- Backup communication
- Define who needs access to which forms of communication and when they might require it
- Ensure all those that require it are trained in using the communication tools they may need prior to departure
- Have backup plans for events in which technology may fail and ensure the group are aware of them
References & Further Reading
- SKAA49 Monitor and manage communications during an expedition. (n.d.). Available at: https://www.ukstandards.org.uk/PublishedNos-old/SKAA49.pdf [Accessed 26 Jun. 2023].
- www.rgs.org. (n.d.). Royal Geographical Society – Gap year planning toolkit. [online] Available at: https://www.rgs.org/in-the-field/advice-training/support-for-students-and-gap-years/gap-year-planning-toolkit/communication-and-responsible-travel/ [Accessed 26 Jun. 2023].
- lespretentieux (2021). Expedition Planning. [online] Base Camp Connect. Available at: https://www.basecampconnect.com/expedition-planning/ [Accessed 26 Jun. 2023].
- Cory Jones (2018). Major Incident Management (METHANE) – First Aid Training Cooperative. [online] First Aid Training Cooperative. Available at: https://firstaidtrainingcooperative.co.uk/major-incident-management-methane/.
- The Wilderness Medic. (2020). Don’t know your GSM from your PLB? Read on to learn all about communications on expedition… [online] Available at: https://www.thewildernessmedic.com/post/don-t-know-your-gsm-from-your-plb-read-on-to-learn-all-about-communications-on-expedition [Accessed 26 Jun. 2023].
- www.outfittersatellite.com. (n.d.). Countries with Satellite Phone Restrictions – Blog. [online] Available at: https://www.outfittersatellite.com/Countries-with-Satellite-Phone-Restrictions_b_11.html [Accessed 26 Jun. 2023].