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close this bookHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
close this folder21. Communications
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentCommunications Management
View the documentTelecommunications
View the documentUNHCR Telecommunications Network Field Preparations
View the documentKey References
View the documentAnnexes




1. Good communications are essential in an emergency. Effective communications require appropriate equipment, infrastructure, and good management.

Communications Management

2. With improved means of communications, even from very remote locations, the proper management of communications has assumed great importance. The structure and flow of communications should reflect that of the management of the operation, with communications being channelled in a properly structured manner.

At each level reports and information received should be analyzed and consolidated before being passed to the next level.

Raw information should not be routinely transmitted simultaneously through several levels of the management structure by copying reports widely, in addition to directing them to the person responsible for action. Distribution of information should be restricted to those who need it for the exercise of their functions and communications traffic in general should be restricted to that which is necessary.

3. Originators of communications should always ask themselves what the purpose of the message is, who will be receiving it, and whether the information contained is sufficient and appropriate for the purpose.

4. Under the pressures of an emergency there is sometimes a tendency to exchange incomplete information. If the information is insufficient for the purpose of the message, and if the matter cannot wait, then acknowledgement of gaps may save time and trouble. For example, "further information being obtained but meanwhile please react on points..."

5. The most appropriate means of transmission for the message should be considered in view of cost, urgency and bulk. For example, avoid using the telephone or fax when the message could be passed by electronic mail (e-mail). Similarly, large amounts of data, unless very urgent, should be sent via pouch or mail rather than bye-mail.

6. Using or developing standard forms can assist communications management, as they can act as a checklist for information usually transmitted in that form of communication (sitreps are an obvious example - see the annex to chapter 8 on implementing arrangements.)

7. An effective referencing system must be used - this is a major factor in ensuring good communications.

Use separate messages for clearly separate subjects.

Correct numbering and/or referencing will greatly help identify earlier communications. It will also provide a means to systematically track actions required and help maintain orderly and disciplined communication. See chapter 20 on administration for more information on a filing system. Annex 1 describes the official UNHCR message identification system which is used by the Telecommunications Unit.

8. The immediate requirement for communications may be satisfied by telephone, e-mail and fax. However, regular pouch, courier or mail services should be established as soon as possible. A checklist for communication needs which should be considered when setting up an office is contained in chapter 20 on administration. In addition, the Checklist for the Emergency Administrator contains guidance, forms and information for setting up different types of communications.


9. Effective telecommunications requires staff and equipment dedicated to that task. When planning telecommunications requirements, the Regional Telecommunications Officer and the Telecommunications Unit at Headquarters should be involved as early as possible. These can help to identify experienced UNHCR telecommunications staff who could be deployed to the operation. Emergency staff can include telecoms officers from UNHCR's standby arrangements. If necessary these officers can be used to supplement UNHCR Telecom staff.

Telecommunications Infrastructure

10. The existing telecommunications infrastructure of the country may not support UNHCR's requirements, because the infrastructure may be either inadequate or damaged. Certain security situations can also result in the telecommunications facilities being closed down or drastically reduced (in which case cellular telephone networks would also be unavailable).

11. UNHCR maintains a stockpile of telecommunications equipment for rapid deployment to emergencies (see Appendix 1, Catalogue of Emergency Response Resources). This equipment provides emergency response staff with immediate communication links from even the most remote locations.

Types of Telecommunications

12. The following are the principle means of telecommunication currently available for use by UNHCR:

i. Telephone. Telephones can be connected through standard landlines or cellular networks for communications within the country, and through international or satellite connections (VSAT, INMARSAT - see Annex 1) for communications with other countries;

ii. Fax. Facsimile (fax) operates over standard telephone lines, or satellite (VSAT, INMARSAT) connections. Fax facilities are available to and from most countries, however it is more expensive and less easily relayed than e-mail;

iii. E-mail. E-mail also operates over standard telephone lines or satellite connections. In the initial phase of an operation, e-mail can be obtained through portable satellite terminals, or using local phone lines if available, and later the SITA network or DAMA satellite system (see Annex 1) can be used if there is a suitable connection point;

iv. Radio. Radio can be used for voice and written communication (including e-mail and electronic data). Installation by qualified technicians is required. In an emergency it is almost always necessary to set up radio networks to ensure communications between UNHCR offices and between UNHCR and other agencies. The radio network will also provide an emergency backup for communications with Headquarters in the event of landline communications being cut. Mobile radios (handheld or installed in vehicles) enable staff in the immediate region to maintain contact with one another and with the office;

v. VSAT (or Very Small Aperture Terminal - a slight misnomer as the smallest dish size is 1.8-2.4 metres in diameter). VSAT is used for telephone, fax, electronic data and e-mail communication. Installing VSAT is a substantial undertaking and must be carried out by qualified technicians; vi. Telex. Although telex is used less and less, it still remains an option where it is available.

UNHCR Telecommunications Network Field Preparations

13. The need for a UNHCR telecommunications network should be discussed at the highest appropriate level in the concerned ministry dealing with UNHCR matters (for example, the Ministry of Home Affairs). The advice of the technically competent authorities should be sought (for example the Ministry of Communications or post and telecommunications service). Note that Section IX of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations provides that "the UN should enjoy for its official communications, treatment not less favourable than that accorded to diplomatic missions in the country".

14. Contact the Telecommunications Unit at Headquarters or the Regional Telecommunications Officer as soon as the need for a telecommunications network is known. Give the proposed number and location of offices, and distances between them, so they can advise on the type of equipment needed.

15. Permission to operate a radio station and frequency clearance must be obtained - in most countries there is a standard government application form. In the case of HF and VHF, check with UNDP and other UN organizations in case they have already received clearance for any frequencies. The Telecommunications Unit or the Regional Telecommunications Officer can give advice on completing the government application form.

16. It is also necessary to obtain permission to operate satellite communications installations. The competent authority will need to know specific information about operating frequencies and characteristics of the equipment. This information can again be obtained through the Regional Telecommunications Officer or the Telecommunications Unit at Headquarters.

Office Accommodation

17. The physical requirements for telecommunications equipment should be kept in mind when choosing office accommodation (see chapter 20 on administration). For example, a radio antenna will require space either on the roof of the building or in an open area at ground level, and a room for the operating equipment very close to the antenna. Note that for optimum results, the cable connecting the radio equipment with its antenna should be as short as possible, and not more than 50 meters if possible.

18. VSAT installations in particular require an uninterrupted view towards the horizon in the direction of the equator (i.e. towards the southern horizon in the northern hemisphere, and towards the northern horizon in the southern hemisphere). The angle of elevation of the VSAT dish above the horizon will depend on the latitude of the office, the highest angle would be on the equator. If the VSAT is installed on a building (on a flat roof for example), the building must be strong enough to bear the weight. If it is installed at ground floor level, there should be enough space around it for a safety margin (4 m radius) to avoid the possibility of anyone coming too close to the transmitting antenna.

Radio Equipment

19. There are two types of radio equipment generally used by UNHCR in field operations for voice and data transmission: HF and VHF Radio.

20. Generally, HF communications are used for longer distances than VHF. The distance over which VHF is effective can be greatly extended by the installation of repeaters. VHF and HF radio would therefore be installed in the offices and in vehicles as appropriate; depending on the distance from base the vehicle is expected to travel.

Radio Call-signs

21. Each radio installation will have its own unique call-sign. The office installation is known as the "Base" station, the vehicle installations are "Mobiles". It is useful to have a formal naming convention for the call-signs, in order to provide a logical reference. For example, one letter can be used to signify the country of operation, one letter to signify the location, followed by one letter for the agency concerned. Remaining letters and figures may be added to provide additional clarity, if the number of users on the network is particularly high. (The country letter is normally omitted, unless cross-border operations are taking place.)

22. For example, a UNHCR office installation in Ruritania, Townville would be (R) T H Base, shortened to T H Base. A vehicle installation for the same office would be (R) T H Mobile 1 (TH Mobile 2, etc.)

23. The phonetic alphabet (see in the Toolbox, Appendix 2) is used so that the callsigns can be more readily understood over the radio, thus the above example becomes Romeo Tango Hotel Base (shortened to Tango Hotel Base), or Romeo Tango Hotel Mobile One.

24. Call-signs for individuals using hand-held radios will normally follow the structure, for example (for UNHCR Townville, Ruritania):

T H 1

("Tango Hotel One")


T H 1 1

Deputy Representative

T H 1 2

Other staff member in

Representative's office

T H 2

Senior Administrative Officer

T H 2 1

Administrative Assistant

T H 2 2

Other administrative staff member

T H 3

Senior Logistics Officer

T H 3 1

Logistics Assistant

T H 3 2

Other Logistics Staff member

25. The phonetic alphabet is set out in Appendix 2, Toolbox. Further information and other procedures may be found in "UNHCR Procedure for Radio Communication" (pocket sized reference booklet).

Field - Headquarters Telecommunications

26. E-mail allows the field to communicate directly with individuals at Headquarters and at field offices where a Local Area Network (LAN) E-mail Post Office is installed. However, e-mail messages sent directly to individual staff e-mail addresses may not be read and acted upon immediately if the staff member is unexpectedly absent. It is better, therefore, to address messages that require immediate attention to a generic e-mail address, these are addresses with the form HQxxnn, where xx are letters indicating the organizational unit and nn are digits denoting a sub unit, e.g HQAF04 is the generic e-mail address of Desk 4 of the Africa Bureau. Urgent messages may be copied to the Telecommunications Service Desk at Headquaters, who will alert the relevant Desk Officer, or Duty Officer, as appropriate.

Telecommunications Unit-Operating Hours

27. The Telecommunications Unit at Headquarters is staffed between the following local Geneva times:


Monday to Friday


Weekends and Public



41 22 739 8777



Swiss time is one hour ahead of GMT in winter and two hours ahead in summer. Arrangements can be made to extend these working hours, as necessary, in emergencies.

Key References

Checklist for the Emergency Administrator, UNHCR, Geneva, 1998.

UNHCR Procedure for Radio Communication, UNHCR, Geneva.


Annex 1 - Common Communications Equipment and Terminology

name or

Full name

Description and Use


Manufacturer's name

High frequency radio system using voice communication,
commonly used in vehicles


Demand Assigned Multiple Access

Satellite (VSAT) system which allows multiple lines
of telephone, fax and data to be transmitted via


Digital Transmission System
(proprietary name)

A successor to PACTOR, allowing the transmission
of e-mail messages by radio


High Frequency

Range of frequency of radio waves used for long
distance radio communication


International Mobile Satellite
(originally called International
Maritime Satellite Organization)

Phone system which provides global phone, fax
and data transmission via satellite


Packetised Telex Over Radio

System whereby printed messages can be sent by


Satellite Communications

Generic term for any satellite communications

C, M, Mini-M

Refers specifically to INMARSAT
terminals used by UNHCR

Telephone system used for voice, fax and data
communications. The equipment comes in various
sizes, from suitcase size to small laptop and with
varying capabilities from simple telex to video-


Soci International de
Tcommunications Anautiques

An organization which provides a global
communications network for airline reservations and
ticketing. It can also provide a communications
network for non-airline customers (e.g. UNHCR)


Ultra High Frequency (Higher than VHF)

Range of frequency of radio waves used for short
distance radio communication


Very Small Aperture Terminal

Satellite system which allows multiple lines of
telephone, fax and data to be transmitted via
geo stationary satellite


Very High Frequency

Radio waves used for short distance radio
communications (e.g. handsets or walkie-talkies)

VHF Repeater

Very High Frequency Repeater

Equipment used to extend the range of VHF short
distance radio communications to a range of 20 to
80 km, depending on the topography

Annex 2 - Message Identification

The following instructions are for telecommunications operators who need to keep a formal log of all messages received and transmitted (including e-mail, fax and PACTOR). The principles are that in each case "HCR" must appear in the prefix and whatever the type and means of communication, each message must bear one number unique to that transmission for each addressee.

Components of the message identity are:

· Message from Headquarters to the Field: HCR/aaaaa/9999

· Message from the Field to Headquarters: aaaaa/HCR/9999

where aaaaa is the official UNHCR location (Duty Station) code of the Field Office concerned, and 9999 is a four figure sequential number starting at 0001 on the 1" of january each year.

· Between field offices: aaaaa/bbbbb/HCR/9999

where aaaaa is the five letter location code for the sending field office and bbbbb is the five letter location code for the addressee, and 9999 = four figure sequential number, starting at 0001 on the 1" of January each year.

· To non-UNHCR addressees: aaaaa/MSC/HCR/9999

There are two categories of four figure sequential numbers which may be used:

Category A is used for communications between Headquarters and field offices and between field offices with a considerable message exchange. The number used would be the next in the series for communications that year between the originator and addressee.

Category B is for UNHCR addressees who do not fall into Category A and for non-UNHCR addressees. If there are many such messages, two series may be used: UNHCR and non-UNHCR. All series or sequences restart at 0001 on the 1" of January.


Category A messages:

HCR/ANGLU/0123 means the 123rd message from Headquarters to Luanda, Angola this year. ANGLU/HCR/0210 means the 210th message from Luanda, Angola to Headquarters this year. ANGLU/RSAPR/HCR/0097 means the 97th message from Luanda to Pretoria, South Africa this year (where Luanda and Pretoria use sequential numbering).

Category B messages:

ANGLU/SENDA/HCR/0024 means a message from Luanda to Dakar, Senegal, and which is the 24th Category B message this year from ANGLU (where Luanda and Dakar do not use sequential numbering).

If there is more than one addressee, a separate message identity must be used for each. If the message is being sent to some addressees for information only, this should be indicated in brackets after the respective message identity. For example messages from Luanda to Headquarters for action, copied to Dakar for information, would bear the following:

(SENDA for info)

In order that the system can work effectively any missing sequential number in Category A must be reported to the other category A addressee as soon as possible, and the last number of the year (or of a series) must be reported to each category A addressee. If a category A number is duplicated by mistake, correct this by allocating the next available number and reporting this number to the addressee by a service (SVC) message. Note that the SVC message itself should also be numbered. Indicate the date or subject to avoid any danger of confusion.