Preventing Failure to Communicate- Part 1, by JMD

Communications failure can be prevented, though it may not be in the form we’re expecting. Ever since the earliest cavemen grunted at each other and painted pictures on their cave walls, humans have been communicating in one form or another. Communications are critical to any multi-person activity. Many people consider having radios and other electronic communications devices a core part of living a prepared lifestyle. Virtually every survival- and preparedness-related forum or blog has one or more sections dedicated to this. Things like shortwave radio communications, protecting your radios from EMP, powering your radios in a grid-down scenario, et cetera.

Unless you’re a lone-wolf, having the ability to communicate effectively with your group, and potentially with other groups, is absolutely critical to maintaining a functioning society. But what about situations where you can’t, or shouldn’t, use wireless electronic communication devices? What if, post-SHTF, there’s a quasi-military marauder group operating in your area that you suspect has functioning radio detection gear? What if the batteries in your radio also die? Perhaps you’re sneaking up on an enemy and are overheard? What if a strong magnetic storm is interfering with radio signals? This article focuses on planning for and using alternate communications methods that don’t involve wireless electronic signals.

Elements of Communication

In order to effectively understand and plan for communications, it helps to first understand the elements involved in any communication:

  • Sender – This is the entity that has something to communicate and initiates the communication process. It is typically a person but can also be an inanimate mechanism. A tripwire that fires off a flare can communicate that someone just passed a certain point on a trail. (You could also argue that it was a delayed communication from the person that set up the trip flare, but the distinction isn’t really that critical.)
  • Content – This is the information that the sender wants to provide to the intended recipient. It can be something as simple as “Send Help”, or something as complex as a SPOT/SALUTE report on an enemy sighting.
  • Encoding – This defines how the information is represented in the communication. It could be plain language, Morse code, or a complex one-time cipher code. Encodings can also be layered. Perhaps encrypting a message using a one-time cipher, then transmitting the encrypted message using Morse code.
  • Handshake – A handshake is the process of negotiation between the sender and recipient regarding the communication, and may or may not be necessary, depending on the type of communication. For example, someone sending a message at night using a signal lamp may flash their lamp slowly (say once every three seconds) towards the intended recipient until the recipient sees it and sends back three rapid flashes, indicating they’re ready to receive the message.
  • Medium – This is how the message is actually composed; for example, if you write down a message, the medium is paper (or whatever you write it on). If you send a message electronically on the Internet, the medium may be email. If you’re using a signal lamp, the medium is light.
  • Channel – This is how the encoded message actually gets sent. It can be light waves from a signal lamp, sound from a whistle, a carrier pigeon, or a runner carrying a note. A channel can be direct from sender to receiver, like a signal lamp from a patrol to the compound. It can be multi-hop, where the communication passes through multiple “exchanges”, like a letter sent through the post office. Channels can also be categorized by their available “bandwidth” – e.g. how much information can be transmitted in a given amount of time. A military field phone between an observation post (OP) and the main compound allows a lot of information to be exchanged very quickly (high bandwidth), whereas a signal flare only allows you to communicate one idea (low bandwidth). Communications channels can be simplex, which means only one end of the channel can transmit at a time (like radios), or duplex, which means both parties can transmit at the same time (like two people screaming at each other). Finally, channels can provide for a momentary transmission, like a flashing light, or a continuous/persistent transmission, like a signal flag raised on a pole.
  • Recipient – This is the intended target of the communication. There can be a single intended recipient (one-to-one) or multiple recipients (one-to-many). A bulletin board in a central gathering room is also a good example of a one-to-many communication.
  • Feedback – Feedback is how the recipient responds to the message, such as confirming they received it. There may or may not be feedback, depending on a number of factors. For example, with simplex verbal communications (only one person at a time can send), there may be a read-back of the message to verify correct receipt, and the use of words such as “over” and “out”. However, if you’re using a signal flare to request help, feedback may be impossible.
  • Eavesdropper – This is someone or something that receives the communication but is not the intended receiver. Interception can be accidental or intentional.
  • Noise – This is anything that interferes with the communication. It could be rain when attempting to use a signal fire, strong winds when attempting to use a whistle, et cetera.
  • Context (Metadata) – This is information about the communication – e.g. date, time, medium used, et cetera. Context can be used as a form of communication itself; for example, sending a certain “all clear” signal when approaching the compound from the east might indicate the sender is under duress, but using the same signal when approaching from the north actually means everything is okay.

A single communication may also involve multiple types of each component; for example, a patrol team leader verbally passes a message to the team’s communications guy, with the intended recipient being the group’s security leader back at the compound. The comm guy writes it down, reads it back, and then heads out to find a tall tree or hill from which to signal the compound using the signal lamp. The sentry on duty at the compound sees the message, writes it down, acknowledges it, and then hands the paper to a runner to give to the security leader. There are two different encodings (plain English and signal lamp code), three different mediums (verbal, paper, light), and three different channels (sound, physical paper transport, and light).

Define Your Requirements

Understand What You Need To Accomplish

The first step in defining an alternate communications strategy is understanding what you need to accomplish. This should include the following items:

  • Who (Senders and Recipients) – Who will need to communicate, and with whom? Will you have a group of people in a compound, small hunting parties or patrols going out on a regular basis, leaders, et cetera.? Will you need to regularly communicate with another compound/town/group located some distance away? Your best approach for this is to define various roles and groups, instead of using people’s names. Roles should cover functions (e.g. patroller, hunter, et cetera.) as well as locations (e.g. everyone within the compound, remote patrol, et cetera.). That gives you a lot more flexibility in the future as people come and go.
  • What (Content) – What types of information will need to be communicated? Create a list of common messages, phrases, and words that may need to be communicated within and between the various roles and groups you’ve identified.
  • Where (Channel and Noise) – Are you located at the bottom of a valley or on a plain, with a good line of sight to the areas you might need to communicate with? Do you have a tower you can use for communications? How far will you need to communicate? This should cover everything from communications within a single group of people in close physical proximity (a patrol team) to those between distant groups (the compound and a hunting party miles away).
  • When (Channel and Noise) – What time of day or night might you need to exchange a given message for a given who/what/where combination? Under what weather conditions? Is there a chance of a message being intercepted by an undesired individual? Map out the various who/what/where combinations and brainstorm possible conditions.
  • How (Encoding, Medium, Channel, Noise, and Interceptor) – What are all of the possible methods of communication you have available to you? Do you need simplex or duplex? Are you concerned about interception? Are there clear trails for runners between your compound and any possible remote locations?
  • Why (Context) – Will you need to define alternate communications methods just for emergencies, or do you want to also use them on a regular basis? Understanding in what situations you’d want or need to use each method can help clarify which one(s) make the most sense for your needs.

A Table Is Useful

I’ve found that creating a table that outlines the requirements can be useful. (It’s one of the few times I’ve found that a spreadsheet can actually be useful.) Here’s an example:


In the first line, we want our active patrols to be able to communicate their status back to the compound. “Defense State Red” mean there are suspected enemy elements (marauders, et cetera) active in the local area, so we want the patrol to send a status update hourly to make sure they’re okay. Since enemy may be present, we don’t want to give away the patrol’s location or the fact they’re even in the area (“Sensitive” is “Yes”). This means we need to utilize one or more communications mechanisms that can be quickly deployed, work in varying conditions (e.g. day/night), and minimize the risk of detection or interception.

Tomorrow, we’ll continue with some options after you’ve thought about your communications requirements.

See Also:

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  1. I am enjoying your article and approach to emergency communications. However, your “A Table is Useful” example image is “useless.” Can you include a larger image in a succeeding article so that we can actually use your example to create our own?

    Thanks much, keep posting.

    1. @Ready Guy,
      Due to the width of the blog and bandwidth constraints, the table and images are first displayed in a small format. You can click on the image and it will give you a full size image that you can save.

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