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Radio Silence – Communication Without Electronics

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I love modern technology, particularly the electronics that allow me to communicate so quickly and easily. Even so, the loss of that capability – for whatever reason it’s lost – doesn’t have to be entirely devastating. We communicate not only without our electronics, but without noise all the time.

I tap my wrist, hold up my hand with my fingers splayed. Across a room, instantly, I’ve told someone they have five minutes, or that I need/want five minutes. I tap beside my eyes, point in a general direction, and then point lower or higher in an aisle of a store. It tells somebody at the other end that I found what we’re looking for, or that I want them to look at something, and then where more specifically that something is.

We do it nearly instinctively, some of us more than others. While hand gestures especially change meaning culture to culture, the ability to communicate without speaking is inherent to our species. It has been since before the first cave painting.

Recently the topic of communication without radios came up. The possible reasons for a non-radio life are pretty varied – a generator or solar panels with significant damage, low winter light, extended-time crisis when even rechargeable batteries are exhausted, seasons and locations when it’s hard to get messages through, EMPs and solar storms, neighbors who have the skills to survive but don’t have the same EMP-proof stockpiles we do, newer homesteaders and preppers who can survive but haven’t moved into serious “thrive” supplies yet.

There are also times we want to communicate, but don’t necessarily want to be heard. Hunting and tactical reasons are two of those.

History and modern technology have given us a lot of options to work around those possibilities and needs. Here are a few.

Morse

Morse code can be applied to a lot of communication options. While it’s primarily associated with radios, it was once a common ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communication method using light instead.

Navy signalman using Morse –

It wasn’t until I started looking for an image online that I realized how dependent people are on the blinker-clicker features of their flashlights for light-transmitted Morse. If you have a milspec light that can take that abuse, great.

If not, cover and uncover your flashlight with your hand.  It’s still fast and easy.

For some of us with broken and aging fingers, and for people who are turning their lights on and off to get the same effect, it’s not only actually easier, sometimes faster, it’s also going to save your light a lot of wear and tear.

You can use a laser pointer for it as well, or cover and uncover a battery-candle-oil lantern with a box (or an oatmeal tub, coffee can, small ones with your hand).

Containing Light

Light stands out like it’s cool at night. Even a little green-red-blue laser light. It travels a long way when it’s dark-dark.

If you’re only trying to not stand out to everybody with one of those insane fifty-yard beams and you’re working from a set, expected position, you can signal by flashing the laser light or a flashlight into your palm or onto your chest, onto a tree or certain wall that’s visible from another location but not most of the property.

If you anticipate the need to really not be seen by anybody but your LOS partner, carry a flattened toilet paper roll wrapped around your small flashlight. (Flattened but tube, not sliced.)

When you’re ready to send a message back to the house, to the other side of a building, along the length of a wall, or down a roadway, cup the tube in one hand so you’re blocking the back, and stick the front of the light just inside it. Or, hold a laser sight/pointer just outside it.

The roll contains the light, so only somebody facing you sees it. If you want, add a mirror or a white disk to the palm to make it a little easier for that person to see.

I pretty much prefer those two general methods, regardless, because you stand a really good chance of blinding the person you’re trying to signal, or at least giving them dots in the eyes, especially with a pointer.

 

Ship Flags

The sea services have been using specific flags to communicate since some of the earliest days, from pirates warning about trying to run from them, warning others that illnesses are aboard, to requesting assistance. This site has a list of international signal flags, their phonetic name, and the navy/maritime meanings.

The phonetic name becomes valuable, because some of the meanings at sea translate directly or with minor modification to things we face on land, too. The Morse, semaphore, or ASL of the phonetic name can be flashed or signed to convey a whole thought or message, just as a flag would.

The flags can be made – painted on boards or drawn on cards to use in windows or to be flashed, or drawn in chalk on a wall or sidewalk as needed. It doesn’t have  to be fabric, or flying in the air.

Any flag, banner, or windsock at all can be part of group and neighbor communication.

If we all normally fly the local team’s colors, but somebody puts it at half-mast or upside down, they could be saying they need help – or they’re ready for harvest/planting assistance. One person with a weather station might say rain, so a blue banner goes up. A black cross on yellow might mean a woman went into labor and the local sheep keeper would be welcome as a midwife. A black dot might mean there’s sickness – don’t come calling.

A flag might also just mean all’s well here, and a quick snip to drop it on the way past alerts all the rest that the gunfire wasn’t practice, it’s real, or that there’s a fire-fire, not burning waste or smoking out bees.

We can get as creative or simple as we want.

Semaphore Flagging

Another powerful tool in the box for sending messages visually, with the same alpha-numeric capabilities of Morse, is semaphore signaling – that signalman out there with the two bright flags or cone lights. Semaphore flag signaling was also once done using a single flag in just four positions (you can find it called wigwag signaling as well).

 

With two flags, there are fewer combinations to remember, but you also have to have two flags – and hands – available. For both, a larger line-of-sight space is required so the flags can be seen.

Established Shorthand Codes

Radio Q codes  and 10 codes have a lot of value for quickly sending messages.

Various established codes provide shorthand communication for “Suspicious vehicle” (10-37), “your keying is hosed and hit every branch of the ugly tree on its way down” (QSD), “Report to [location]” (10-25), “stand by” (QRX), and “Be super-duper quiet” (“Do not use siren or flashers”) (10-40).

Those are all phrases we might use, from communicating across a yard or across a farm, as a simple survivor with a neighbor or family, or as a group with defensive and patrol forces. 10-codes especially have a lot of preexisting elements that are of use in many situations.

They can be transmitted with clicks, whistles, a pipe smacked with a hammer, marker on a dry erase board, flashed/blinker lights, or using semaphore flag(s) and hand signals.

We can also easily modify or truncate existing codes.

“QRO” (are you troubled by static noise) can become “do you hear anything”.

10-81 (breathalyzer report) becomes “just a drunk”.

10-90 (bank alarm) can become a prefacing code for an audio or visual alarm, with the location following it.

As with cop and amateur radio codes, there are hospital codes that can apply or be readily modified to fit life without radio communication. Heavy equipment operators and divers also have signals we can steal and modify. Knowing the common motorcyclist signals can be applied to daily life as well as serious disasters.

Military Hand Signals

Whether we’re ever planning to clear a house or a yard with another person or not, military and police hand signals also have applications for many situations. The numbers alone are useful. There are also action-information signals that are pretty handy.

The difference between “stop” and “freeze” gets used with my dumb dog 20 and 200 feet from our house with some regularity. I prefer to just go extract her or the ball from my pots and planters, but sometimes I just want her to stay generally where she is while a car passes. “Go back” translates to “out/away” in our world – I want her to back away from me, usually while I’m playing with sharp things or might squish her.

I originally thought it was just my quirky father telling dogs, the rest of the family, and hunting buddies that we were going to the vehicle with his “steering wheel” gesture. For a while I though the military had stolen the “down” signal from hunters with dogs.

Turned out, not so much. He just modified them from his military days.

Even without need for silence, it’s just really easy to whistle or clap a hand once, tap a window, ring a triangle, and then make a quick gesture, as opposed to shouting fifteen times or hiking out to somebody.

The gestures themselves are rooted in military hand signals we each learned (decades apart). In most of my lifetime’s applications of them, they’ve had no military bearing at all. But like the ability to say “I love you” a last time from a window, or immediately flag a distress signal in a boating-savvy community, they entered into our world and stayed in use.

ASL

American sign language has some of the same benefits as the everyday-everyone useful military signals. There are a world’s worth of truncated single-gesture shorthand signs, for everything from “man” or “female child” to “taking lunch”.  Deaf-mute people are able to hold the same sophisticated conversation as speaking and hearing folks. The addition of spelling and broader concepts to military hand signals allows ASL signers to be more specific across even distance, silently.

It’s also just a handy skill to have and might increase your employability when you stick it on a resume.

Written Word

As with flags and hand signals, we can take cues from history and modern eras with leaving drawn symbols – or flashing cards and posters – as well.

Here’s a fairly comprehensive listing of WWII symbols. It wouldn’t be completely crazy talk to go with another nation’s symbols, such as German or Russian, if you want to keep the information a little more segmented, although there tends to be a lot of commonality.

The old hobo symbols can be a little tricky. I can think of three or four for “safe water” alone. It also means adjusting from “black spot of death” and “X marks the spot” to slashes and X’s are bad, and dots are good.

However, from “dangerous man” and “vicious dogs” to “rickety bridge” or “avoid this in rain”, there are many apply, whether we’re planning on a community, thinking “Kilroy” situations, or just making notes for family or a core group.

The symbols also allow us to quickly and easily annotate our own maps for areas of concern or resources.

Limitations

The limitation to all of these is line of sight. But in some to many cases, being able to communicate even from a driveway to the house, the length of a hall, or stacked in a ditch, without making noise or taking a lot of time, makes them worth considering. There’s a good reason many of them have never faded from use, even with today’s technology.

If you want to communicate at range in the dark, you’ll need flashlights or pointers, (or oil-candle lanterns if your non-radio needs are expected due to long-duration interruptions in shipping). For us, that’s balanced, because we have lights on us, almost always, but not always a cell signal and not always a radio. That might not hold true for everyone.

Hand and flag signals are limited in range, while light carries longer distance. However, blinker-light comms is only really reliable at night. I may be able to use red boards, car windshield heat reflectors, or white flags to increase range in the daytime.

The number-one piece of gear for longer-distance communication without electronics is going to be binoculars or a scope.

Day or night, if I can’t see what you’re sending, clearly, we have delays or miscommunication. They’re inexpensive enough and should be part of most preparedness closets anyway.

If you’re mostly in brush country and are only talking about distances of double-digit yards, don’t break the bank there – there are more important things. If you’re looking at using blinker lights and somebody climbing a windmill or water tower daily or weekly to do a neighborhood-town flag check, a simple scope should work.

It’s also a lot to learn.

Instead of planning to use all of them, maybe take notes, print guides, but cherry pick. The very basic hand signals (heard, saw, numbers, armed or unarmed, child, adult, animal, danger, recover/relax, say again) and basic Morse code would take priority. 10 and Q codes can be added on. A few flags or graphics to represent ideas or situations follow.

Radio Silence Backups

The point is not to discourage anyone with fifty-five million more things to learn or buy. It’s that we have lots of options even if electronics-driven communication becomes unavailable. With any luck, there are some ideas here that can add some resiliency and redundancy to existing plans.

And, since a lot of it is learning based, not resource based, non-radio comms can be a way to improve preparedness with free-inexpensive skill building while saving up for purchases.

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  • Hart

    Great idea!! Lip reading and sign language would be good for if you can see the other person. The light idea you listed is a good one. For people further away though.. I think we would have to go back to letters by horse back or training pigeons. Smoke signals are an idea, as well.

    • R. Ann

      Thank you!

      I’ve heard the pigeons theory proposed before. It would take a lot of moving infrastructure and coordination. Given the number of us with plans to hunt small game and the number of predators that will be losing game to humans, especially, and the lifespan/working lifespan of the birds, depending on what went wrong and how fast it happened, you’re going to have to make a trip carrying a fair number of trained birds to the other location(s).

      You also have to feed and keep caged the birds, or, when released, they fly back to their home nest (kind of their job). They’re not expensive, but it can be laborious to keep a cote for 8-15 pigeons clean.

      I can think of conditions when it wouldn’t be impossible due to scenario and distance (We may just be on opposite side of a hill, high-rise, or a couple miles).

      Mostly, though … I think that’s one that’s going to stay way on my backburner for a while.

      On the other hand, pigeons and doves are easy to trap and easy to convince to live at home. Then once they’re established, the already (relatively) predator-savvy birds can free-forage.

      Once they have a nest or two, they’ll keep returning unless something drives them out. They can have several nests a year, and squab is a near-free delicacy.

      A few ounces of seed a month, especially a high-fat seed in the winter. A double-cage system with holes small enough raccoons and cats can’t get into and perches, some bowls and boxes, maybe a wrap or two in winter to further insulate the back, daily water and regular seeds so they stay accustomed to you … it’s almost-free meat (although they’ll join the masses of crows and sparrows feeding every time you plant and as grains mature), and who knows …

      Then maybe at some point down the road you start keeping some of the second-fourth-sixth generation squab and training for racing/messaging.

      Cheers!

      • Hart

        Wow.. I didn’t realise they were that much work. My dad has pigeons, I’m not really sure where they go but they always go back to his house. I can’t seem to recall him training them to do that. Last year, I tried to simply take two to my house (I was hoping to keep them) but they took off on me and flew back to my dad’s (half a mile away) they were back to his house before I even had a chance to tell him I lost his birds. I personally have no intentions on using pigeons for that but it was apparently a method used in this area many moons ago (or so my father says haha), the other method was the mail which was by horse when my grand father was a boy and by dog sled in the winter (Of course they had a mailmen with the animals). I hope it never comes to that.

        • R. Ann

          They’ll fly home, but you’ll want to exercise them for fight time, health, and teach them to wear and carry the message bands if you want more than a couple dozen characters.

          You have to plan to feed them (it’s not a lot per bird) because they’ll head for home when it’s well established.
          Birds that live with you for a couple years, and the nests they raise, won’t fly to your father – they’ll think your coop is home.

          Your dad is right about the old days, too. Carrier pigeons were once common and bird messengers were widely used in WWI especially.
          Pony Express did it faster and longer and with Indians, but other private horse messenger services existed for a long time, with some areas holding onto traditional transportation longer even as public-service mail became common. Families also used people heading in general directions to pass messages and letters along to others (which was just as reliable as it sounds).

          • William Snapp

            Thank you R. Ann for such a throughly researched article. It is articals like yours that make The Prepper J. such a go-to survival information source. Thank you again.

            • R. Ann

              Thank you!
              What a great compliment, wow.

  • Flattop

    Don’t forget the humble CB radio. You only need a car battery and a short antenna to cover 10 or 12 miles. They have compact models, and , you can buy hand helds also.

    • R. Ann

      I’m actually a huge SSB fan. Ease of operation, flexibility of that bumper-to-bumper whip, ease of assembly, lack of books to read first, and power draw make it extremely attractive.

      I was just going for non-electric, non-radio (radio silence) methods, largely visual-based, in this article.

      A comparative of HAM to CB, the types of CB’s, LOS-requirements and antenna/power effects, and specific models looking at range, portability, and power conservation would be some nice articles to see, if you’re interested in writing them. (I’m not, but I always love seeing what others are doing in the CB SSB world).

      Cheers!

  • showmerancher

    In my advanced classes I teach all students the standard military hand signals for use in “crowded venue” situations (i.e. malls, convention centers, etc.), with both their family members and for tactical coordination purposes with others in the area that might have received the same training. They also receive extra hand signals to accompany specific team tactics they learn for coordinating with others for the same reason.

    In crowded venues is is likely your hearing will be impaired by screams, gunshots, explosions, etc. where family members may be unable to hear you. The hand signals are used to communicate directions and used in conjunction with manipulation and “stay/go” drills.

    Finally, these hand signals are similar to those used by law enforcement tactical units where if you are near a door/window it may be possible for you to flash signals to them outside with critical information such as the number of assailants, how they are armed, their location, etc.