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Communications Exercises: It should be a standalone activity

07 February 2018 5 minutes
Communication Challenges
Communication Equipment

“No matter how good a communication system is, it can, and will, fail at some point.” – David Goldschmitt, MD. 

In 2001 -2002, while assigned to the 557th Military Police Company in the Republic of South Korea like other Military Police organizations and other units we conducted exercises to test our Standard Operating Procedures and reinforce collective and individual skills. For Military Police units, this included Law Enforcement Operations outside the concrete that makes up a city.

Exercises generally required multiple agencies to respond in unison to exercise scenarios based on the threat and hazard assessment for the region. Communications were always a problem as a result of all the same problems emergency responders in North America experience; geography and interoperability challenges. The disruption of communications limited organizations from adequately testing SOPs and therefore affected organization readiness. The utilization of communication exercises was the answer.

To be effective, to save lives and preserve property we must understand where communication failures may occur. You know how it goes; you are no stranger to it. Months of planning and drilling for an exercise that will test your organization’s ability to use the Incident Command System, follow the plans that were developed, conduct interagency cooperation to complete tasks and perform the team and individual tasks that make you the Fire Fighter, medical provider or law enforcement professional. Then on the day of the event, communications fail or do not function in the manner needed to facilitate all the movement required to respond to and mitigate the emergency you are exercising.

Download this Guide to learn what are the most common communication challenges among incident management teams 

Although a person’s ingenuity is tested in moments like these the exercise itself will not reach its full potential because of the communication problems. It almost defeats the purpose of conducting the exercise in the first place; wasting money and time. During any After Action Review that I have attended communications is always an area in which leadership states is an area that needs to be improved.

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I’ll just say it; communications should be exercised alone and before each exercise. This communications exercise should encompass all agencies that will participate in any Functional, Full-Scale or Multi-site exercise; period. Conducting a communications exercise will accomplish many things and will help you to achieve your goals during exercises where you need to test other aspects of your response without communications problems becoming a distractor to the exercise objectives.

What will a communications exercise do? It will achieve the following:

Evaluate communication interoperability

A key component in an emergency response is the ability of communications equipment to operate together so that everyone is able to communicate needs, status updates and provide on the spot direction. Communication interoperability can, of course, be tested during exercises. However, the identification of points of communication failures during these exercises can negatively impact how you conduct the exercise itself. With this in mind, the communications exercise will enable you to determine if systems are functioning and if not give you time to troubleshoot and find workarounds without those identified challenges impacting other areas that need to be tested. Like with any exercise, the goal is to either prove that the systems are working fine or determine where the points of failure are and fix them.

Build Confidence in our communications equipment

One of the goals in any exercise is to build confidence in the tactics and equipment that is needed to achieve objectives. This confidence enables our teams to respond to emergencies and disasters better. Therefore since our communication systems are the cornerstone of any operation, we need to build confidence in our communications.  A communications exercise will help build on the confidence responders have with the communications equipment that they have be equipped with. This will occur because over time responders will understand if they can transmit and receive in the area they are operating in. For example, if transmissions cannot be received from the Northside of the city they will know and have time to prepare countermeasures for this challenge.

Determine where dead zones are

The general focus of communications interoperability is the functionality of your communications equipment with agencies communications equipment. That said the functionality of your equipment goes beyond just the functionality between two systems. Although that functionality is critical you must plan for geographic areas that limit communications signals. How many times have you been in an area and you do not have cell phone coverage; radio communications can have the same challenges. These dead zones should be identified so responders have knowledge of what areas will affect communications and organizations can plan countermeasures so that they can respond and communicate in every square mile of their jurisdictions. Take a look at this case study about Cheshire County Sheriff’s Office to learn how they solve their coverage problems for both radio and cellular communications.

Determine signal distance

Along with identifying dead zones comes the confirmation of signal distance. How far can the signal of your transmissions reach via the base station and handhelds? For example, in my current community, there is a specific area in which communications simply do not reach. The cause is unknown but, this understanding the area gives our first responders the time to plan and establish countermeasures so that their response to emergencies in this area is not hampered by communication challenges.

In conclusion, testing the operability of our communications is vital to the success of emergency response regardless of the organization or geographic location. With this in mind, it is not enough to just conduct communications exercises to test our communications interoperability. We must identify points of failure and immediately fund the fixes to those challenges. We cannot let the identification of issues gone unaddressed. Like bad news communication failures do not get better with time without action by leadership to recommend and fund countermeasures.

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Goldschmitt, D., & Bonvino, R. (2009). Medical disaster response: a survival guide for hospitals in mass casualty events. Boca Raton: Taylor & Francis.

Gary Schlotthauer

Mr. Schlotthauer currently serves as the Emergency Manager for Vectrus Systems Corporation on the Kuwait-Base Operations and Security Support Service, Department of Defense contract in the State of Kuwait. In this role he serves as the Emergency Management Adviser to the Area Support Group – Kuwait Director of Emergency Services and Emergency Management Coordinators for military units. Additionally he manages the 911 call centers in the Kuwait Area of Operation. Mr. Schlotthauer retired from Active U.S. Army service as a Senior Military Police Leader in 2010 and has since supported U.S. Military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and now Kuwait in roles that support security and emergency management operations.

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