International code of signals
The purpose of the International Code of Signals is to provide ways and means of communication in situations related essentially to safety of navigation and persons, especially when language difficulties arise." It has done this by first establishing a standardized alphabet (the letters A to Z and the ten digits), along with a spoken form of each letter (to avoid confusing similar-sounding letters, such as 'b', 'p', and 'v'), and associating this alphabet with standardized flags.
Combinations of these alphanumeric characters are assigned as codes for various standardized messages. For instance, the master of a ship may wish to communicate with another ship, where their own radio may not be working or the other ship's call sign is not known or the other ship may not be maintaining a radio watch. One simply raises the Kilo flag (see diagram at the top), or sends the Morse Code equivalent (dash-dot-dash) by flashing light; this has the assigned message of "I wish to communicate with you."
One practical application of the ICS is that all of the standardized messages come in nine languages (English, French, Italian, German, Japanese, Spanish, Norwegian, and, since 1969, Russian and Greek). This fact is immaterial if the sender and receiver(s) are using different languages; each language has a book with equivalent messages keyed to the same code. This is also useful in radiotelephony, or even when ships are within hailing distance, if there is no common language: a crew member on a burning ship yells "yuliett alfa vour", and a vessel coming to their aid knows exactly what they need — "material for foam fire extinguishers" (that is, the foaming agent). (See de:Flaggenalphabet for the German version of single-letter signals.)
The code also covers procedural aspects (how to initiate a call, the format of a message, how to format date and time, etc.), how naval ships (which usually use their own codes) indicate that they are using the ICS (by flying the code pennant), use in radiotelephony (use of the spoken word "Interco"), and various other matters (such as how an aircraft directs a vessel to another vessel in distress and how to order unidentified submarines to surface).
- Single-letter signals which are very urgent, important, or common.
- Two-letter signals for other messages, sometimes followed with a numerical "complement" which supplements or modifies the message.
- Three-letter signals beginning with "M"; these are the Medical Signal Codes.
In some cases, additional characters are added to indicate quantities, bearing, course, distance, date, time, latitude, or longitude. There is also provision for spelling words and for indicating use of other codes. Several of the more common single-letter signals are shown at the right. Two-letter signals cover a broad gamut of situations.
Repeated characters can be a problem in flaghoist. To avoid having to carry multiple sets of signal flags, the Code uses three "substitute" (or "repeater") flags. These repeat the flag at the indicated position. For instance, to signal MAA ("I request urgent medical advice" the Mike, Alfa, and 2nd substitute flags would be flown, the substitute indicating a repeat of the second character.
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