Wireless access to the internet is changing the way we live, work and play. With access to email, social media networks, and the wider internet at our fingertips, most of us spend our waking hours ‘connected’, even when working in a remote exploration camp. On the plus side, it means we can stay in touch with friends and family but has access to the internet killed that social vibe that comes with camp life? Has an increased digital connection destroyed our ability to connect with our colleagues in person?

AME spoke with Jamie McLennan, an experienced project coordinator who has worked in exploration camps for almost 40 years, about the evolution of camp connectivity, from a simple two-way radio to multiple WiFi networks, and the impact it is having on remote work safety and mental health.

WiFi in camp is an improvement for the industry but for the mental health of the people at the camp, it’s a double-edge sword. Some people do much better, but some people do much worse.

Camp connections

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the only connection an exploration camp would have to the outside world was likely to be a radio, used once a week to order food and supplies from the expediter. Next came the original ‘brick’-style radio phone used to dial out via an operator. These communications were used almost exclusively for camp operations.

“Back then, you would plan for the whole season,” said project coordinator Jamie McLennan, currently on contract with Equity Exploration Consultants, “You went out and executed it, then at the end of the season you came back with all your data, went through it and planned for next season.” Contact with the office, or with your family, was extremely limited.

Portable satellite phones followed the radio phone. At first, these ‘portable’ phones came in a huge box with a dish that needed to be set up. Eventually, the box shrunk to the size of a suitcase, but the dish got bigger. Handheld satellite phones were next, namely Globalstar and Iridium, and then WiFi arrived in camps about a decade ago.

“When WiFi first started in camps, there were fewer users and they didn’t depend on it,” said McLennan, “It was novel to send an email from camp. Plus, social media was less prevalent, and fewer people had smartphones. Now, everybody wants more bandwidth. You need to expect that every person in camp will have at least two personal devices.”

This is true in camp and at home. By 2021, each person in North America will be connected to the internet via an average of 13 devices, up from seven in 2016, according to communication company Cisco. Globally, the number of public and home WiFi hotspots will grow seven times from 64 million in 2015 to 432 million in 2020.

Does connection make us safer?

“There is a false sense of security that because you’re connected, you’re safe,” said McLennan, “It’s not true at all. Just because you are able to speak to help sooner doesn’t bring you any closer to the hospital or reduce the severity of the injury or situation.”

Being connected can be a hinderance, said McLennan, because it could slow the rescue process down. Previously, it was up to the people on the ground to know how to take care of each other, under the assumption that help may be hours or even a day or two away. Now, there is a misconception that you are going to be OK because you can phone the hospital, but you are still the same distance from the hospital and doing the same dangerous work.

Camp connections and mental health

In the past, communications were primarily for camp operations. In the evenings, after dinner and the responsibilities of the day were done, camps tended to be more social. There was little choice but to get along with your camp-mates or go to sleep!

“It’s very different now days,” said McLennan, “When the plane lands at a remote camp, people used to step off the plane and look around and say ‘wow, this is cool’. Now, they jump off the plane and ask for the WiFi password.”

Life in camp “becomes more nine to five” when people remain constantly connected to friends and family at home. People disappear to their tents after the work of the day is done and connect to the outside world. Science and productivity may suffer, too, said Mineral Deposit Research Unit Research Associate, Al Wainwright. Before WiFi, people were less distracted by the outside world and more able to make connections between the discoveries of the day and the big geology picture.

It’s not all bad!

“You have to work harder to have a happy camp; it doesn’t just happen naturally any more,” said McLennan, “There are lots of people who perhaps couldn’t cope with camp life but now they can because they’re connected. But there are others who might have done OK in camp but can’t cope now because they’re connected. It depends on the individual. Some people need to disconnect while others can’t work without being connected.”

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, the overload we feel trying to achieve the work-life balance can be heightened by modern technologies that are intended to make our work lives easier. Achieving a balance between work and the rest of our lives is even more difficult when workers are expected to be available 24/7.

“At the end of the day, it’s good and bad,” said McLennan, “Everything is in 3D now and you have gigabytes of data going back and forth all day long. Things happen much more quickly now, work-wise, you’re constantly making decisions on the fly with additional information, building a 3D model and planning drill holes on the fly.”

Put the screen down…

So, if you happen to be reading this in a camp in a remote location, thank you for reading but please consider looking up and stepping away from your screen. You’re sure to ‘Like’ what you see outside and make a friend #IRL in the process.