Preventing Failure to Communicate- Part 4, by JMD

We’re continuing to evaluate how to prevent a failure to communicate when we do not have wireless electronic communications available to us. We’ve been exploring our options. Yesterday, I wrote about various channels of communications. Today, we’ll move into various forms of communications to consider.


In the beginning of this article, I mentioned that it was about alternatives to wireless electronic communications. However, that doesn’t rule out wired forms of electronic communication. Wired communications tend to be point-to-point, are very hard for anyone to intercept, and can send large amounts of information. The biggest disadvantages are that they require electricity and they are both relatively complex equipment to function (complex relative to a fire or whistle) and generally limited to certain locations and distances (the maximum length of your wire).

  • Telephone – You can set up a relatively simple point-to-point telephone system using some used military field phones.  You can buy these at a military surplus store, and some commo wire. You can even build one yourself using some old wired telephones, a battery, and a few electronic parts. One advantage to this type of channel is that it allows you to use plain language and exchange a lot of information quickly.
  • Telegraph – A telegraph is similar to a telephone, except that it only allows simple dots and dashes to be transmitted (which is what Morse code was invented for). The telegraph can be considered the distant forerunner of the Internet. It allowed a lot of information to be exchanged over very long distances. One advantage to the telegraph is that it is much simpler than telephones, and you can build an entire system from parts you probably have laying around your house.


Mechanical communications channels transmit information via physical linkages. One example in older houses is the mechanical doorbell, which tells people inside the house that someone is at the door. The transmission distance tends to be limited. Direct mechanical linkages are required between the two endpoints. But it can be useful within a house or compound. Mechanical channels are also commonly used in conjunction with other channels. For example, this might include using wires to raise a flag up a pole. Or pulling on a wire that rings a bell in the alert shack. A wire-and-pulley system can also be strung between two locations to transport written messages.

Another form of a mechanical comm channel that would be useful for a patrol in potentially hostile terrain is a piece of string. In this case, the person on watch has one end of the string, and the other end is tied around the hand or foot of one of the sleeping team members. If the person on watch spots something, they can pull on the string to awaken the rest of the team, virtually without any movement or noise.

Physical Transport

Physically transporting messages is another very common form of communications channel. The U.S. Post Office is a perfect example. Messages are encoded on a medium. In the case of a messenger they are possibly memorized, then transported to their destination. Physical transport can potentially carry a lot of information securely (assuming the information is encoded and the courier doesn’t know the code), but it can be slow and potentially dangerous. Various methods can be used for physical transport:

  • Messenger – A messenger is an individual who is charged with transporting messages between points. They can do so on foot, in a vehicle, on a boat, on a hang glider, in a balloon, or on a carry animal, like a horse (think Pony Express). The reliability of a human messenger is dependent on issues like distance, weather conditions, accidents, and potential enemies encountered enroute.
  • Animals – The use of animals to transport of messages has been around for thousands of years. For example, homing pigeons were used to announce the winners of some of the first Olympic games in ancient Greece, and dogs have also been used to carry messages since World War I. The biggest disadvantage to using animals to transport messages is the need to breed, train, and maintain them. However, if you already have dogs, training them to return home on command may be a viable option. As with human transport, the reliability of animal transport can be impacted by distance, weather, and predators. Note: Based on personal experience, cats do not make a good message transport animal, unless you need to transport a message to the kitchen when a can of food is opened.
  • Nature – You can, in some circumstances, use the natural environment to transport messages. For example, if you’re located near a river and need to communicate with another town downstream, you could create a system of raft-based communications (obviously one-way).

Physical contact is a useful channel for communication when absolute silence is required. It is also useful when visibility is poor. The people that need to communicate must be in close proximity. One example of this would be a tap code, with the sender using their finger to “tap” a message on the arm of the recipient. This could be used in a situation where a tactical team needs to clear a building in the pitch dark and hand signals can’t be seen. Another good example of touch-based communication is Braille, which is used to publish books that can be read by touch.


The final type of possible channels involves the use of smells to communicate. Animals use scent extensively to communicate, since they tend to have well-developed olfactory senses, but it’s not very practical for humans. One example might be to burn a certain material on a fire to produce a specific smell that has a defined meaning, but this would be impacted by things like wind direction.


Communications are a two-way process, and the ability to provide feedback can potentially be critical to successful communications. If the sender has no way to receive feedback from the recipient, they have no way to verify that the message was actually received and understood. In the “Emergency, Medical, Old grain mill” example (from the beginning of this article), if the message was misunderstood, the compound may end up sending a tactical team instead of the medic. If the sender can’t receive a reply to tell them the medic is out on another call and unavailable for at least two hours, they won’t know they’ll need to begin transporting the injured person towards the medic’s location or compound. Every communications procedure you design should allow for feedback, if at all possible. At a minimum, this should include some form of acknowledgment that the message was received.


In a SHTF situation, someone eavesdropping is a concern. Having people who might want to do you harm knowing where you are and what you’re doing might result in some seriously negative consequences. Where possible, communications methods should be chosen and implemented to minimize the chances of a communication being detected or intercepted. For example, when using light-based communications, care should be taken to minimize the directional spread of the communication and to focus it towards the intended recipient. With sound-based communications this will be a lot more difficult. Part of your communications procedure should include, if at all possible, quickly vacating the area the communication was sent from, if there’s any chance of an undesirable eavesdropper.

Another consideration is protecting the coding schemes you use for communicating. Giving everyone a written copy helps ensure they learn it and use it correctly, but this may also allow an enemy to obtain a copy of it and decode your communications. This can be addressed to some degree by the use of mechanisms like a “decoy” for potentially sensitive communications. For example, you could create and document multiple, different encoding schemes and have each member of a patrol carry a different one, with the valid one being stored in a secret pocket.


As mentioned earlier, noise is anything that interferes with the successful delivery of a communication. Examples include rain when attempting to use fire signals, fog when attempting to use light signals, or strong wind when attempting to use sound signals. Your communications procedures should include at least one secondary channel for each primary one that takes into account different potential noise conditions.

Also, don’t forget the other side of the coin. In some instances you may want to be able to intentionally generate “noise” to interfere with an adversary’s ability to communicate effectively. This can take the form of visual noise (smoke flare), audio noise (alarm siren), et cetera.


Context (also called metadata by us geeks) is information regarding any aspect of the communication itself. This can include the date or time it was sent, how it was sent, and where it was sent from. As mentioned previously, the context of the communication can be used as a form of communication itself. For example, if your procedure is for a patrol to send a status update every hour on the half hour, and they send an “All OK” message on the hour, this could be used to indicate the patrol is under duress.


I’ve (hopefully) communicated a lot of information regarding your options for alternate communications in a situation where the use of wireless devices is contraindicated. (I’ve always wanted to use that word.) So what should you do to prepare?


I discussed some ideas on planning earlier, and your first step should be to sit down and start brainstorming your possible communications requirements. Write down everything that comes to your mind for possible immediate, short-term, and long-term requirements for who, what, where, why, and how, and start organizing them in a table. This should include a list of common messages (content) that you may need to send. The table should be technology-neutral. Just try to understand what communications you might require. Get the whole family or group involved; you can even make a game out of it. I’ve found that kids absolutely love playing around with “secret communications”, and they tend to learn it faster than most adults.

Once you’ve started understanding your requirements, start plugging in possible solutions. This could include radio as a primary communications but should definitely include multiple non-radio backup methods.

Planning should be an iterative process. Start off with a few simple messages and methods, then build it up as you progress.

Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up this article series.

See Also:

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  1. This topic on communications, and this particular article are about as complete and relevant as I’ve ever seen. Excellent stuff, and who ever winds up being my commo chief had better be on it as well or better than this guy. Thank You!

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