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March 6, 2003

Universal sign langage can save lives, Kiwanians told

From: Sweet Home New Era, OR - 06 Mar 2003

Communication can save lives, but often, the normal modes of communication are not available in emergencies.

Radios may not work in some cases. In other cases, for example, police and fire personnel may be on different frequencies and miss important information. Maybe a hostage can be seen. Verbal communication might result in an unpleasant end, but the hostage may be able to signal important information to police officers on the scene.

Alan Morris and Bob Dent presented their program of hand signals, what they call "silent universal signals," which can be used in such instances and save lives.

Morris is a retired director of training at the U.S. Navy SEALs training academy. Dent is a retired Oregon State Police trooper.

Communication or the lack of it affects even military operations. When Morris was a SEAL, he and his fellow SEALs didn't trust the Army. They used a different language.

Morris and Dent's goal is to establish a common signal language, especially among police, fire and school workers, but also throughout the public

They took about four years to develop their system, and they have taught it to law enforcement departments in several states, military intelligence officers, search and rescue workers, firefighters and paramedics and teachers.

At the Columbine, Colo., school shooting, on Sept. 11, 2001 and at emergencies throughout the nation, emergency workers used radios to communicate, Morris said. One firefighter was unable to hear another by radio near the World Trade Center because of noise. They were right across the street from each other. At Columbine, a teacher was signaling emergency responders through a window, but no one realized it.

"No, (Homeland Security Director) Tom Ridge can't protect us," Morris said. "It's going to take our communities at the grass roots to protect us."

Silent communication is a component of that.

Using silent universal signals, people can communicate when silence is necessary for safety. Among their signals are 18 they believe the public and students should know. Those appear on a poster. Emergency workers use a more elaborate system to create "interoperability" between agencies.

"What we'd like to do is get the whole community on board," Morris said. The most basic signals are "I'm being held hostage" and "help."

Morris demonstrated "I'm being held hostage" by hold a clenched right fist up against the right side of his chest. To say help, he held his index and middle fingers up scratching against his chest.

Everyone should be aware of those two signals, he said.

Dent and Morris use standard hand signals that are easy to understand, then they added some American Sign Language and invented some of their own to create the signals.

The two offer a training program for local emergency workers and teachers. The cost is approximately $5,000, with them donating half of their instruction time.

In the program, they would train some staff members who would in turn train additional staff members.

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