The Importance of Learning Primitive Communication Methods When No Phone Will Work and the Internet is Crashed

If the grid crashes there are more ways to be left in the dark than you think.

We hear it all the time.  “Don’t worry about the Internet if the grid goes down.  The Internet was designed to survive thermonuclear war.”  Unfortunately, the original design of the Internet was based on conventional, hard-wire phone lines that were surprisingly resilient to catastrophic failures.  Today’s Internet is different.  It’s a swamp of wireless modems, ethernet cables and numerous other devices dependent on a stable infrastructure that is both complex and fragile.

And then there’s the cell phone argument.  It’s the idea that our cell phones will always work as long as we have a way to recharge the battery.  A small solar panel would certainly work as well as an AC converter attached to a 12 or 6-volt battery.  But here again, a complex and fragile network resides behind every transmission tower and wireless provider.  Your cell phone may be fully charged but the only thing that may still work is the flashlight feature.

Fortunately, there are some good, old-fashioned alternatives dating from thousands of years ago to a few decades.  Here are some of the highlights of what we’ll cover:

  • Morse code
  • Semaphore
  • Emergency Body signals
  • Ground signals
  • AM/FM radio
  • NOAA Weather Radios
  • Smoke signals
  • Gunfire
  • Walkie talkies
  • CB radio
  • Ham radio
  • Physical message boards

The list is long but a little preparation and something as simple as a copy of this article can give you a good reference point for alternative means of communication.  Depending on your ambition you can learn and practice some or all of these communication methods.  If there’s one skill you should take the time to learn it’s knowing how to send and receive Morse code.

Morse Code 

Morse Code was developed by Samuel Morse in the 1830’s.  His rhythmic system of dots and dashes represented the first communication platform that could quickly transmit messages over great distances using a series of audible dots and dashes transmitted by wire and eventually, wireless radio transmissions.  The dots had a short duration and the dashes a longer duration. The code was also transmitted visually with a flashing light defining dots and dashes depending on the duration of the individual light flashes.  This approach was used by naval ships to avoid any interception of transmitted signals.

You can buy inexpensive, practice telegraph keys that can help you to learn rhythmic Morse Code.  More sophisticated telegraphy keys are commonly used by Ham radio operators but there are primitive and common ways to effect sounds in Morse Code.  They include:

Audible Options for Morse Code

  • A car horn with the code durations determined by the length of time pressure is applied to the horn.
  • An air horn used the same way
  • Drumbeats on a hollow log or drum with deep, bass notes as dashes and higher notes serving as dots.

Visual Options for Morse Code

  • A flashlight. Some flashlights like the standard issue Boy Scout flashlight actually have a button to allow you to easily manage the duration of the flash.
  • Car headlights can also be used to transmit a Morse Code message.
  • House lights that are switched on an off can communicate with distant neighbors late into the night or the dark, bitter cold of winter.
  • Signal mirrors are a standard addition to many survival kits and most have a hole drilled in the center to help you align reflected light to a specific target. This occurs when the dot of sunlight on your face aligns with the hole in the mirror as you look at your reflection on the backside of the mirror.

Morse Code 101

Here are the dots and dashes that align with letters of the alphabet and numbers.  It’s easier to learn than you think and certainly worth the time.  It can be fun as well when you and your friends or family learn it together.

Morse Code

Semaphore

Semaphore is a communication system that typically uses flags held in a certain position away from the body to define letters and numbers.  Flags are the common semaphore signal choice but even arms, paddles or anything that can be held to make the signal visible at a distance can be used.  There are 8 primary positions for each arm and the various combinations define both the alphabet and numerals 0 through 9.

Semaphore was the primary communication system prior to Morse Code but it was limited in term of its ability to communicate over long distances.  A solution was a continuing series of semaphore stations where the message was received and re-sent from visibly placed stations to stations over long distances.

Semaphore Signals

While any color or color combination can be used in an improvised situation there are standard colors used specifically for land and sea.  On land the color combination is blue and white sometimes called “The Papa flag,” while at sea the combination is yellow and red and is often referred to as “The Oscar flag.”

Emergency Body Signals

In this instance we’re not talking about sign language but a communication system that can best be defined as choreographed body-language.  This communication approach was intended for ground-to-air communication to a circling plane or hovering helicopter.  It’s a valuable skill to know in the event of a natural disaster related to flooding, flash-fires, or areas devastated by hurricanes, earthquakes or tsunamis.

Emergency body signals

Ground Signals

Ground signals are defined by a set of symbols on the ground made from tree trunks, branches, leaves in piled lines, rocks or stones, a trench, seaweed, ashes, anything that can provide a contrast to the ground and be seen from a plane, helicopter or the height of a mountain.  We often hear stories of people stranded on an island in the ocean and eventually being rescued because of a crude ground signal.  And that points to one of the benefits of ground signals.  They are visible over a duration of time and don’t require an individual to be on site in that location to communicate a situation.

Ground Signals

Ground signals are another example of a communication tactic that is designed to be seen from the air.  In terms of size and visibility, the bigger the better.  Another consideration is flammable materials defining the symbol giving you the option to light the material on fire to increase visibility during the day and to effectively signal to an overhead aircraft heard during a flyover at night.  

AM/FM Radio

It’s curious to think of radio as a primitive communication tool but as we drift more and more towards streaming audio on the Internet, satellite radio, and songs on our iPhones most of us would be hard put to find a radio in our house.  Of course, most alarm clocks still have a radio but if the power’s out we’re out of luck.  And that’s too bad because the radio can be a primary source for news about any situation affecting us.  More importantly radio broadcasts are fairly low-tech, and the signal strength of AM radio can easily carry for hundreds of miles.  But there are some options that don’t require electricity:

  • Your car radio.
  • A solar powered radio with an optional hand crank to keep the battery charged. Some of these radios even have a flashlight option with a button to activate a flash for Morse Code.
  • A good old, battery powered transistor radio. Sure, the music comes out tinny, but any voice will come through loud and clear and that’s all you want during a time of emergency.

NOAA Weather Radio

Here’s another example of a communication method that’s not exactly primitive, but once again we use them less and less as the Internet and cable TV occupy our time and attention.  NOAA Weather Radios are specifically set for weather broadcasts and emergency alerts.  That could be a very important piece of information if you are in an area struck by a natural disaster or an area where significant weather is looming.

NOAA Weather Radio

They’re easy to buy online and at many electronic stores and are also available for low cost on eBay and Craigslist.  They’re battery operated usually with some AA batteries and can be set to automatically activate in the case of a weather emergency.  Don’t stay at home without it. 

Smoke signals

It may seem laughable, but smoke signals can be an effective communication tactic and has been used for thousands of years to signal significant events.  On a primary level, the color of the smoke often signaled a basic condition or situation.  White smoke usually signaled that all was well, while black smoke was a sign of impending danger or a need for help.

This simple use of black or white colored smoke is used to this day by the Catholic church to signal the election of a new Pope with white smoke emerging from a chimney in Saint Peter’s square, or black smoke indicating that no decision has been made.

Various Native-American tribes used smoke signals to indicate a condition or situation based on the location of the smoke or fire.  Smoke emerging from a fire on the side of a hill indicated that all was well, while smoke or fire at the top of a hill indicated danger.

And yes, there’s that classic idea of an Indian with a buffalo hide sending up puffs of smoke as an ancient form of Morse Code.  Unfortunately, weather conditions are rarely favorable for this type of communication.  You need a perfectly still day without the slightest breeze and you need very high atmospheric pressure, so the smoke will rise rather than hug the ground.  That’s not to say this form of communication wasn’t possible, especially in the desert southwest, but it was rarely a reliable method for communication due to variable weather factors.

The military uses various colored smoke grenades to indicate location and the condition of troops or eminent danger.

Any planned use of smoke signals needs to be determined and discussed with anyone expecting to communicate effectively using smoke, but as a general rule -white smoke is good news and black smoke is bad news.

Gunfire

A standard rule of the wilderness is that 3 evenly spaced and consistent gunshots indicates a call for help.  Repeating these shots is sometimes necessary after a couple of minutes to indicate the shots are indeed a call for help rather than an over-eager, young hunter.

Walkie Talkies

The Walkie Talkies that many of us played with as kids were based on the fundamental field radios often used in World War II.  Before cell phones became the common way to communicate to others, upgraded versions of the Walkie Talkie became briefly popular such as the Motorola TalkAbout.

Walkie Talkies

Most Walkie Talkies have a range measured from hundreds of yards up to a couple of miles.  They can be found today on eBay or Craigslist for a very low price and use 3 AA or 3 AAA batteries to operate.  But keep this in mind.  If you have any intention of relying on any battery powered communication device, you may want to seriously consider rechargeable solar batteries.

CB radio

During the 70’s and into the 80’s CB radios were extremely popular.  CB stands for “Citizens Band” as a way to differentiate the channels and usage from closed circuit frequencies reserved for police, fire and other emergency services.  CB’s are easily powered by a12-volt battery but that assumes you can recharge it if the grid is down.  Here again, a solar panel can do the trick.

CB Radios

CB’s hit their stride with long-haul truckers who used them to communicate traffic conditions, backups due to accidents, road emergencies and police speed traps.  A CB language emerged from this usage and then the emergence and popularity of cell phones put CB’s to an abrupt end.

CB’s are still available on eBay or Craigslist and can be purchased for prices ranging from $5 to $20 with an antenna.  The communication range is dependent on the location and height of the aerial and the terrain.  Across open water the range can be measured in miles.  In hilly or mountainous areas, the range can be limited to hundreds of yards.

Ham radio

This is the communication champ in desperate times.  The size and location of an aerial is critical to long-distance communication along with unmanageable variables like atmospheric conditions, sunspots and location.  Significantly, a Ham Radio operator can communicate to the other side of the planet if the atmospheric conditions are right.

Ham Radio communication is often done through Morse Code, but voice communication is also possible.  Morse is still popular because even with its low signal strength it can deliver the simple dots and dashes of Morse better than the complex transmission of clear voice communication.

As a Ham Radio operator, you’ll need to be licensed but all bets are off if there is an emergency or catastrophic situation.  Regardless, effectively operating Ham Radio equipment requires training and practice.  New setups can be bought online, and older equipment can be found on eBay or Craigslist.  Books on the subject abound and many community colleges offer Adult Continuing Education classes about Ham Radio operation and training.

Physical message boards

 This may be an odd combination of words, but we need to differentiate from the message boards that crowd the Internet and social networks.  A physical message board is literally a physical place or space where people post hand written messages or look for messages intended for them.  They’re commonly seen in third world countries after a natural disaster like a Hurricane, Monsoon, Tsunami or Earthquake.  They also appear after man made disasters like civil war or local insurgencies.

Sometimes these physical message boards or places are supervised and managed, but more often than not they simply emerge and develop a life and destination of their own.  Not surprisingly these message areas tend to show up around places where there is some local authority in place or present.  This official presence often creates gathering points for people in emergency situations, and the relative security afforded makes it an obvious place to gather and pursue ways to connect and communicate.

The most effective communication is clearly addressed to someone by name and identifies a place and time to meet in the future in the hopes that the message was seen.  Sometimes the message is a general appeal to anyone having information about the whereabouts of a person either by name or photo or both.  In that regard it’s similar to the milk-carton, “Have you seen me?”  approach.

Don’t Rely on Just One Approach

When you step back and look at these various communication approaches they’re more about knowledge than hardware.  Even in those instances where some equipment is needed it tends to be inexpensive and easy to acquire.  That’s why you should think about bundling your communication tools whether it’s the ability to understand and transmit Morse Code, or acquiring some simple communication tools like Walkie Talkies, an NOAA Weather Radio or a CB radio or two.  If things quickly go seriously wrong, you’ll be relieved to know that you at least have some options to stay out of the dark… even when the lights go out.

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