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Preventing Failure to Communicate- Part 2, by JMD

We’re continuing to evaluate how to prevent a failure to communicate in the event that our normal, electronic communications equipment are not available to us. Yesterday, we looked as some definitions and began defining our own communications requirements. With that in mind, let’s move forward.


Now that you’ve (hopefully) thought a little bit about what your communications requirements might be, let’s take a look at some possible options for the various elements.


As I mentioned earlier, the best starting point for figuring out a communications strategy is by making a list of everyone it will need to support. For a smaller group, like a family, this may simply involve a list of all of the people in the family. However, what if an emergency arises that requires you to call for help from your neighbors? Make the list as complete as possible, and allow for potential future additions. When the group starts getting larger, like a compound or a small town, you’re better off defining communications in terms of roles. For example, anyone involved with security should probably learn how to use tactical hand signals.Someone who never leaves the vicinity of the compound probably doesn’t need to know how to use a long-distance signal lamp.


Most communications that we’re familiar with tend to be a logically connected series of sounds or images that convey an idea. The range and flexibility of modern language and media allows us to convey a lot of information quickly and concisely. Technologies like the Internet allow us to exchange huge volumes of data quickly. However, in a grid-down situation where we can’t use radios, we’ll be forced to fall back on low-bandwidth technologies like signal lamps and whistles [1]. That means that the more concisely we can structure our communications content, the better we’ll be able to communicate low-bandwidth technologies. One way we can cut down on the volume of information we actually need to transmit is by substituting simple codes for commonly used content (encoding). For example, instead of having to transmit “Emergency – send the medic.

We have someone injured by the old grain mill” using Morse code, we can create a code where the number of flashes represents the most commonly used items we need to communicate. This might look something like “flash-flash-flash, pause, flash-flash, pause, flash-flash-flash-flash” being sent by a flashlight. The first group of three flashes is the internationally-recognized code for an emergency (three signals of any type). The second group of two flashes is a code your group has defined to mean “medical emergency”. The last group of four flashes represents the code defined for the old grain mill. However, in order for this scheme to work, we need to first define lists of the most common content items we may need to communicate.

Common Content Items

A list of common content items could include items such as:

The more types of standard content you can pre-define, the more you can send using simple codes; however, the tradeoff is that memorizing the content and its associated code will become more complicated as it expands.

No matter how much content you pre-define, there will always be situations that require communicating information that you haven’t thought of. In those situations, your people should be trained to communicate in simple, clear, and concise language that provide complete information and can be easily encoded. That’s why the military defines reporting mechanisms like SALUTE [2] (Size, Activity, Location, Unit identification, Time, and Equipment), which provides an operator with a mnemonic checklist of what they need to provide when reporting an enemy sighting. You should develop your own checklists that are relevant to your situation and location.


Encoding defines how the content is actually represented in the communication. In the previous example, the number of flashes represented (or encoded) specific items. Three flashes for an emergency, two flashes for the type of emergency (medical), and four flashes for the location (old grain mill), so the medic knows where to go. By pre-defining your content as previously discussed, you can use simple codes to represent to represent each message element, significantly simplifying your communications.

The encoding format should also define how the parts of a message fit together. For example, a message that starts with the code for “Emergency” is always immediately followed by a code indicating what type of emergency. A status report for “Returning to base” is always followed by a time unit indicator (“days”, “hours”, or “minutes”). That is followed by the number of those time units.

Numbers can be difficult to encode, particularly large numbers, since you need a scheme to handle any possible number, and you don’t want someone to have to have to send 100 flashes to indicate the enemy is 100 yards away. This is a situation where mixing encoding formats may be useful. You can use your simple number=content code for the core message, then use something like Morse code for sending the numbers, assuming your communications channel can handle both short (dot) and long (dash) sending pulses.

Encoding- Hand Signals

Another example of encoding are tactical hand signals [3]. These are standard hand signs that police and military teams use to communicate silently when any noise, even a whisper, could get you killed. Sign language [4] is another good form of encoding, as it can provide a comprehensive range of content quickly and silently (but it can be difficult to learn).

Encoding- Fixed Visual Signal

For persistent communications that don’t need to exchange a large volume of information, and where you have a good line of sight between the sender and receiver, a fixed visual signal is a good choice for encoding information. This can be something as simple as a splash of a certain color of paint on a tree, or something as complex as signal flags. One of the most commonly known forms of persistent flag-based communication is flying the American flag upside-down to indicate help is needed.

Encoding- Reducing Risk of Intercept with Codes and Ciphers

One other advantage of encoding is that it minimizes the risk of someone outside of the group understanding any communications they may intercept. Your own substitution code will probably be unique to your group, and there aren’t that many people out there that know Morse code (but there are some). If communications security is a significant concern for you, especially with written communications, you may want to look into using some form of code or cipher. A good choice is a book cipher [5]. In a book cipher, the message consists of a series of numbers, representing the page number, the paragraph/verse/sentence, and the word in that section, in a book that both the sender and receiver have a copy of.

Using common books, such as a Bible or dictionary, allows a wide range of messages to be encoded/decoded across a group of people. Another option is a one-time pad [6] or rotating cipher, where standard letters and numbers are substituted with other letters or numbers, with the substitution code changing every time a message is sent, or on a regular basis. A simple header code is frequently used to inform the receiver which version of the cipher was used to encode the message.


Before any communication can be effectively exchanged, both the sender and the recipient have to agree upon a number of items. First, the recipient has to be ready and able to receive the communication. For normal verbal communications, this is usually as simple as saying the intended recipient’s name and waiting for them to acknowledge you. For long-distance signal lamp communications, this may involve sending a continuous signal in the direction of the recipient until you get a “ready to receive” signal back.

Details regarding the format of the message in the subsequent communication may also need to be provided by the sender. In the previous example, the receiver knew that three flashes meant an emergency; but what if the sender actually intended to send a more detailed message in Morse code, and the three flashes were an initial “S”? Your communications should always start with something (frequently referred to as a “header”) that lets the receiver know if the message is encoded and, if so, how it’s encoded. In the previous flashes example, the agreed format may be that starting with a single 3-second long “flash” means the following message will be in Morse code; otherwise it uses your standard content encoding.

Tomorrow, we’ll continue discussing “options”. There is much more on this subject.

See Also:

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