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Communications equipment does not provide security. It is an aid to security, if properly used.
The leader of a field team should ensure that the team’s communications requirements are thought through in good time to allow the despatch of any vital equipment with the team as it deploys.
It is good practice, in insecure situations, for staff to have two independent means of communication (e.g. radio and satellite phone), so that if one breaks down communication will still be possible.
Avoid dependency on mobile phones. In a crisis a cellular telephone system is particularly vulnerable to becoming overloaded, damaged, or simply switched off by a belligerent.
Useful equipment may include:
From a security point of view, key questions requiring decision include:
Answers to the above questions will depend on the assessed threat. In most situations, it is not thought necessary or cost-effective to have all members of staff in constant contact, using mobiles phones or radios, though if this is necessary then it should be provided. The manager should decide on the basis of the likely threat to each staff member, regardless of whether they are national or international staff.
In many countries there is a legal requirement to obtain a licence to use radios that are capable of transmitting. Check the local regulations and abide by them. Some countries forbid NGOs to operate radios or satellite telephones.
Technical assistance will be needed to set up and programme radios. Check whether such assistance is available locally. If so, consider whether it would be safe to rely on local technicians, who may become suddenly unavailable in a crisis. It is also important to be confident that they can be trusted with the knowledge of your communications arrangements: for example, could local military groups pressurise them into revealing sensitive information about your organisation?
Communications equipment is valuable and portable, attractive to thieves. This should be borne in mind when deciding where to locate communications equipment. Normally staff should sign for receipt of their communications equipment, and be held responsible for its safekeeping.
Staff should be trained to use all types of communications equipment that they may need to use. Remember that in a crisis the staff who are most skilled in using the equipment may not be available.
Annex 24 of the ECHO Generic Security Guide for Humanitarian Organisations gives an introduction to basic radio use, and sources of further help.
No communications system is fully secure. All staff should be aware of the need for information security, and the risks that can arise from interception of communications. See Annex 15 for a discussion of information security.
This is an extract, with minor adaptations, from the ECHO Generic Security Guide for Humanitarian Organisations, © Copyright the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid – ECHO. Available here as a free download online, in English, French, Spanish and Arabic.