Communication is all about context. If you're in Kenya, speaking Swahili is a perfectly effective form of communication, but if you're in Finland, it certainly won't be. Even within the English language, there are many dialects, accents, and vocabulary differences that can impede our ability to understand each other. Someone from the Louisiana bayou will probably have a tough time communicating with someone from Scotland, especially if they're trying to do so over a garbled radio connection. Establishing a standardized system can help us make our intentions clear immediately — that's exactly what NATO set out to accomplish with its phonetic alphabet, codes, and signals.
The NATO communication system was designed to “enable forces from many nations to communicate in a way that is understood by all.” This includes verbal (phonetic alphabet) and non-verbal techniques (Morse code, flaghoist, semaphore, and panel signals) used to communicate numbers and letters of the English alphabet. Trained personnel from the 29 NATO member states should be able to interpret these signals, at least for basic words or phrases (i.e. SOS).
As survivalists, we probably won't be communicating long messages between ships via flaghoist, but it's still valuable to commit the basics of the NATO system to memory for emergencies. The following infographic from NATO provides a full overview of the organization's standardized communication systems. Click here to download a full-size version.
For more methods of emergency communication, refer to our article on International Ground-to-Air Signaling Code.