Preventing Failure to Communicate- Part 5, 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 the different types of communications and types of interference to communication. I wrapped up yesterday’s part of the article by introducing what you should do to prepare. The first part, of course, was plan. Let’s take a look at the second part and conclude the article with the subsequent steps to prepare.


Once you’ve got a good handle on your requirements and solutions, you should create a couple of important documents. The first is referred to by the military as a “Standing Operating Procedure” (SOP). This will be the “bible” for all of your communications. It should cover all of the elements for your communications, such as types, encodings, handshakes, feedback, watches, et cetera. This will probably change as you practice, learn, and evolve, so make sure you keep it up to date. You should print off multiple hardcopies of the document and keep them in separate safe locations. Note that this doesn’t have to be (and probably shouldn’t be) a huge hundred-plus page document. Just cover the areas that are most relevant to you. You may want to make the document modular and keep it in a three-ring binder. Then you only need to replace the pages that change.

The next potential document is a training plan. You probably want to avoid just handing the SOP to people and saying, “Read and learn this”, especially to kids. Put together a realistic plan for getting everyone involved. (See the “Practice” section for more details.)

The final type of document is a “cheat sheet”. This is a simple one-page or less reference guide that can be used by folks when they’re out and about to refer to as they’re learning the SOP. It can contain encoding schemes, handshakes, feedback, et cetera. These should be laminated in plastic so they survive use in the field. You can also create multiple smaller reference cards, each of which summarizes a different part of the SOP; that way folks can just carry the ones that are relevant to them when they are on the move. As I mentioned earlier, you may also want to create decoy cheat sheets in case an enemy gets hold of one, and make sure the real one is well hidden.


Once you’ve defined your communications plan, you need to make sure everyone knows how to execute it. This means being able to communicate effectively as required for all the roles a person may be responsible for. If you have kids, make this a game or contest. As I mentioned before, many children are fascinated with secret communications. Once they learn something they’ll probably remember it for the rest of their lives. For example, if your children get an allowance, make them ask for it using the date, day of the week, and time using Morse code.

You should also plan on regular refresher training, especially for methods that you don’t use frequently.

Communications Watch

Part of your SOP should include a communications watch. This is a person (or people) who are responsible for watching or listening for incoming communications, especially when any personnel leave the immediate area. These people should be well-versed in all of the possible types of communications they may receive and equipped with the tools necessary to maximize their chances of successfully receiving a communication (e.g. binoculars, ear trumpet, et cetera). The people staffing the communications watch should be rotated on a regular basis, as a person will start losing their focus after hours of doing nothing but waiting and may miss an important incoming communication if they’re distracted or drowsy.


While it’s possible to communicate by beating sticks on logs or screaming, having some basic supplies available can greatly expand and improve your options. Here are some recommendations:

  • Whistles – Whistles are one of the best possible options for basic communications over a distance. They’re simple, light, reliable, and easy to use. My favorite is the Acme 636. I recommend on having at least one whistle for every person and a bunch of spares. A good policy is that everyone should have one around their neck (dog tag chain or paracord with break-away clasp) at all times, even when sleeping.
  • Flashlights – A flashlight can be used as a very effective signal lamp. There are too many options to list, but I generally recommend going with a LED bulb that can provide at least 200 lumens.
  • Signal mirrors – A signal mirror is useful for folks that are out and about, assuming they have the possibility of a clear line of sight to the recipient. A good quality glass one can be expensive, but you can also find less expensive ones that are almost as good.
  • Flares – Flares can be seen quite a distance in almost any lighting conditions, so they provide a good method of sending short emergency communications. If stored appropriately, they can last for decades.
  • Smoke – Smoke signals are very dependent on lighting and weather conditions but can still be useful in some circumstances. They can also be used to introduce visual noise to disrupt an adversary’s communications.
  • Hurricane Lamps – Hurricane lamps are oil-fueled lamps that have been around for a long time, and they produce a decent amount of light that can be used for signaling. You can also move an opaque screen back and forth in front of them to generate light pulses, or mix colors (using colored transparent plastic) and numbers to create different meanings.
  • Monoculars/Binoculars – If you plan on using any form of visual communications, your people’s ability to see the signals can be greatly increased through the use of some form of magnification or amplification.
  • Alarm Siren – These are pretty much a one-trick pony in terms of the sounds they can produce, but alarm sirens are incredibly loud and can be heard from a long distance away. Make sure you stock spare batteries if it uses them. These are also useful for disrupting an adversary’s verbal communications at close range.
  • Manual typewriter – If your handwriting is anything like mine, you’ll probably want a better way to produce messages and documents that can be easily read. I recommend finding an older manual typewriter and practicing with it. You should also stock up on ribbons which, if properly sealed and stored, can last decades.
  • Paper/pencils/pens – Because sometimes a written message will still be the best option. I recommend stocking on various sizes of Rite-in-the Rain (or equivalent) notebooks for people that may be out in the elements, lots of lined notebooks for in-house use, typing paper (if you have a typewriter), and lots of good old number 2 pencils (along with plenty of pencil sharpeners, although you can use a knife too). You can use pens, but I absolutely guarantee you that you’ll run out of ink at a critical time. You may also want to stock on some grease pencils, but find some quality ones; the cheap ones break easily.
  • Laminate – If you want to send people out in the elements with documents like communications quick reference sheets that won’t shred when they get wet, you can type/write them on regular paper and then laminate them to protect them.
  • Air horn – An air horn can provide a good method of communicating with a large group of people in a local area, and a refillable one can be used over and over.
  • Bells – Bells can be used to produce a range of sounds, and they can range in size from small ones that can be tied on clothing to huge church-style bells. That simple American classic, the dinner bell, is useful for a wide variety of sound communications. You can vary the speed and strike pattern you use to send different messages.
  • Watches – Many communications, such as status updates, have a time component (e.g. send a status update every two hours). Having watches allows people to comply with those requirements. Note that while a good watch can last decades, they won’t last forever, so it would behoove you to begin training people to do rough time calculations based on things like the sun’s position.
  • Maps and compasses – These can be critical to determining which way to face when using any directional form of communication. It also allows you to know where you are, in case you need to send that as part of a message. You should make sure you have multiple copies of maps, and divide them up into numbered grids, which tend to be easier to communicate with limited bandwidth.
  • Chalkboard and chalk – A chalkboard and chalk are good for communicating with a group of people from a central location. You can post patrol schedules, upcoming events, the current defense state, et cetera.

Other Considerations

While this discussion has focused on options for communications in situations where you can’t or shouldn’t use radio, you should also consider implementing and using these methods as soon and as often as possible. Radios and the batteries that power them won’t last forever, and since Amazon probably won’t be available to replace them post-SHTF, the less you use them the longer they will last. And by getting started with alternative methods early on you’ll be much better positioned to carry on when your radios do eventually fail.


Hopefully this article has given you some food for thought regarding alternate communication methods. I encourage you to do some more research and think about how you communicate now, how you may need to communicate in a TEOTWAWKI scenario, and what you may need to do to accomplish your communications goals (both radio and non-radio). I know that I’ve probably barely scratched the surface regarding all the possible options and scenarios, so if you have any additional ideas or suggestions, please feel free to leave a comment.

See Also:

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  1. Good advice. I’ll add one additional idea that fits between these options and a radio — the good old TA312 Army Field Telephone. Yea, it’ll need batteries and wire, but for short, fixed (1/2 mile) installations, it provides quiet, reliable and private communications.

    If you can find them, the TA1 is even better; no battery required. But very limited range.

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