09 June 2010

P.A.C.E. Your Family's Communications Plan

I'm really not a survivalist type, but, given the "what-if" natures of both my civilian and military jobs, I can get real paranoid real fast when it comes to safety, security, and emergency preparedness. Still, I'm probably more of a "prepper" than a "survivalist." I tend to make plans rather than all-out preparations.

And, given my experience as an Army radio-telephone operator (R.T.O.), I usually focus on communications as a place to start.

Most of the time, I try to dial it back a little, so as not to scare others. For example, when I asked my kids' daycare provider about what their communications plan for winter school closings, I forced myself NOT to follow-up with a question about what the plan would be if the high-school next door was locked down for a bomb threat or a shooting incident.

(Before you ask--yes, I can either be real fun at parties, or a big downer. Depends on your perspective, I suppose, and whether my glass has yet been half-emptied on that particular evening.)

My kid brother lives in the San Francisco Bay area--earthquake country. His kids' daycare maintains an on-site semi-trailer full of parentally provided emergency backpacks, each of which contain supplies enough to take care of a kid for a couple of days.

I think this is brilliant--the administrators are obviously thinking about the unthinkable. Even if (when?) the "big one" hits, crashing phone systems and curdling pavement, parents will know that their kids will be OK. There's no "failure of imagination" at that daycare!

Soldiers and their families can incorporate a similar approach toward deployment. To help sort through the host of 21st century communications options--including e-mail, Facebook, web cameras, telephones--I recommend a "PACE" communications plan. Yep, it's the same way we talk it in the military:
Primary. What's the most-preferred means of communications?

Alternate. As a back-up to the primary, what's the second-most-prefered means of communications?

Contingency. What is the means of communications if something big and bad happens--think earthquakes and floods and hurricanes--an event that eliminates the possibility of using the Primary or Alternate? In other words, where and how would the soldier contact his/her family, if the family suddenly was without all services, or had to evacuate cross-country? One tip: Designate an out-of-state contact person that everyone (including the overseas soldier) can call to check-in; long-distance phone lines can sometimes function when local service has been cut.

Emergency. How will the soldier be notified if there's a death or illness in the family? Believe it or not, this may be the easiest part of the plan on which to agree. That's because the American Red Cross is the emergency channel of choice for communicating such information to soldiers. Red Cross notification and verification is required for getting a soldier emergency leave, when feasible. Click here for an overview of the message process; note that the procedure is the same, whether a National Guard soldier is deployed overseas or merely at stateside Annual Training.
In your family's plans, remember that there will be times that communications will simply not work downrange, possibly for days at a time. Time and technology work more slowly overseas. Internet and phone services in-country might be slow, unreliable, and unsecure. They may also be temporarily cut in order for official communications to take priority. Postal mail delivery may also be slow, depending on a soldier's location.

Because of these reasons, many military families adopt a "no news is good news" approach. Any message of significance--an injury, for example--would come either directly from the soldier, or through official channels. Otherwise, make a plan and figure out what mutually works best.

On my first deployment, my wife and I decided to avoid using e-mail much, if for no other reason than we mutually consider "romantic e-mail" to be a contradiction in terms. Our phone calls were weekly, at best--the time-difference made it hard to find the right time to call, and the long pauses and delays caused by the satellite system forced us to sometimes use radio procedure words such as "OVER" and "OUT."

I also had to train myself out of "chief household problem-solver" mode; when Household-6 told me about a problem--a leaky faucet, for example--I had to realize that she'd probably already taken care of it. It wasn't my job to fix her problems while I was away. Instead, my role while deployed was listen to her problems, and offer support and ideas as I could.

I might seem paranoid sometimes, but apparently I can be a sensitive guy, too.

At least, that's what some people say. Sounds like a worst-case scenario to me.


  1. "I also had to train myself out of "chief household problem-solver" mode; when Household-6 told me about a problem--a leaky faucet, for example--I had to realize that she'd probably already taken care of it. It wasn't my job to fix her problems while I was away. Instead, my role while deployed was listen to her problems, and offer support and ideas as I could."

    This may be your soundest advice ever!!! (Re: Household Six anyway.) PDV

  2. Did/do you find yourself doing things differently in regards to communication when the kids came along? This is our first long separation since our son was too little to understand, and I'm more concerned with his four-year-old anxieties than my own. I'm not sure what will make things worse vs. better; Skype sounds great, but I'm a little afraid it'll backfire and make the distance seem even greater.

    Great idea on the 'contingency' plan. We don't have relatives in the immediate area, so it will be easy to find that out-of-state contact.

    Hope you all have fun in Minn-ee-sota!

  3. @ RedBullWife: Roger that on 4-year-olds. I've been asking my buddies, and the only insights I've figured out so far are: Every kid is different, and every kid reacts in a potentially unpredictable way. I'll write more about the topic on Monday, but here's a quick anecdote:

    During the Gulf War, I stopped by my co-worker's house while I was in uniform and on my way to drill. I'd found a plastic Army helmet that cost all of $3, and I gave it to her 3-year-old son. He was thrilled, and I managed to avoid the gun-toy trap. As an unintended consequence of my good deed, however, the little guy started to become anxious about Gulf War news stories. He would ask regularly: Will Sherpa have to go to war?

    I, too, am interested in exploring Skype, although one previously deployed friend said that his son was more interested in watching himself on the computer than his dad. And the connection speeds at the time were kind of herky-jerky.

    My family has previously tried web-cams with grandparents, with mixed results. It takes two of us to corral the kids in the camera, start the computer, keep the chaos and background noise to a minimum, etc. Maybe it just takes practice?


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