Emergency Communications: Flags

Feature | Emergency Communications: Flags

Can Flags be Used for Communication?


Yes! Aside from flag semaphore, flags can also be used to symbolize signals such as letters or visual warnings that depict a certain condition. 


People want to communicate during emergencies. When a catastrophic incident takes out electrical power and cell phones, how will you communicate with family and friends? How will you keep everyone informed?

This is the first of a series of articles discussing how the ordinary person can get in touch with and share information and news. When the wheels fall off the wagon in our country, communication will be the key to surviving any coming storm. And silent visual communication can be vital for security and safety.

Emergency Communications: Flags

Visual signaling can be used when you want to maintain radio silence or your radio is not operable. Not only is it an excellent way to contact others without making a sound, you can also use this to create coded messages that other observers will not easily understand.

In the 1930s and 40s, people used ice boxes to keep food cold. A delivery vehicle came through the neighborhood each day to bring blocks of ice to homeowners. Ice can be heavy, so the people in the houses placed a cardboard sign in their front window to indicate to the delivery driver how much ice they wanted. On the sign they printed the number of pounds of ice they wanted the iceman to bring into their kitchen and place in the ice box.

10 pounds

“Please deliver 10 pounds of ice here”

During WWII, families placed a flag in their front window with stars to show how many in their family were serving in the military (or had died in action). Below is the flag that my mother hung in our living room window while my father was serving overseas during World War II.

WWII window flag

Flag placed in our living room window during my father’s WWII service.

Another place where special flags are used is during a pandemic. To keep healthy people from getting infected, a yellow flag for the letter “Q” can be used to signify that there is disease inside and this location is quarantined—no visitors allowed. The yellow signal flag is hoisted on a pole, placed in the front window or mounted on the front door warning others to avoid that building.


“This building is quarantined. Stay away.”

There is also a flag or sign for “radiation” to mark a radioactive area or container.

Radiation | Emergency Communications: Flags

Visual signs are everywhere. Here’s a familiar hexagon-shaped sign:


A typical stop sign.

Now take this concept and apply it for visual communication when the grid is down and people are locked in their homes but want to know what’s going on around them.

A signal flag makes an excellent message medium. In the military and on ships at sea, signal flag designs follow the International Code of Signals with each letter and number represented by a unique color or colors in a particular design pattern.

For example the letter “S” is represented using a white flag with a blue box in the center.


“L” is represented with a square containing a yellow and black checkerboard pattern.


Using colored cloth or colored school construction paper, you can create the signal flags established by the government or you can create a custom set of signal flags. The key is: the simpler, the better. And both sender and receiver must know how to interpret the message being displayed.

If you adopt the standard flags and establish a code for each flag, you can easily use these to communicate with people across the street or up the hill. For example, you could designate a “W” to mean “water needed.” The “F” flag could mean “food needed.” Or “M” for “medical help needed.”

Or you could combine letter flags to indicate phrases such as “H W” for “Have Water” or “N M” for “Need Medical” service.


“H” “W”


“N” “M”

In fact, complete words can be spelled out using signal flags.

survival life in flags

“SURVIVAL LIFE” in flags.

There are endless ways to communicate with your family and neighbors using signal flags. Be creative. Be aware and stay informed.

Want to learn more? Check out these related articles.


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