Communication & Signaling

No matter how much you prepare, distress situations can still occur. The ability to quickly alert search and rescue (SAR) authorities increases your chance of a successful outcome.

Signaling for help

Just before you leave for your next great outdoor adventure, stop for a minute to think about your survival and signaling skills; are you prepared for that emergency?

Do you know what the universal signal for help is?

It’s important to be familiar with the emergency ‘call-in’ process in your area , i.e.: 9-1-1, and know how to reach your local search and rescue team efficiently through the proper agencies in your community. Feeling confident in your abilities to gain their attention, having proper equipment such as a fire making kit, a reflective signaling device and safety whistle, can all assist with your safe rescue. Consider taking a course and educating yourself as you’ll need the appropriate training in order to be noticed, rescued and brought to safety.

Signal Fires

A fire can serve many purposes while in the great outdoors, such as cooking and warmth, as well as your emergency signal, if prepared properly. It’s critical to understand the basics of building this ‘flame signal’ or ‘smoke signal’ fire designed to summon help and ensure you are rescued quickly. A simple guide is to remember the number 3. The universal signal for help is 3 fires, built in either a triangular pattern or if space doesn’t allow, set 3 fires the same distance apart in a straight line for easy spotting at night. In daylight however, you can create the smoke by putting lots of green vegetation on top of the existing flames. This vegetation won’t burn but will create a lot of smoke to alert potential searchers in the air, on land or water. Always remain as close to your signal source as possible.

Signal Mirror and Whistle

Of the essentials you should be carrying in your safety kit, the whistle and mirror signaling devices are great tools to have, as long as you know how to use them properly.

Using the mirror or other reflective items such as a knife, belt buckle, sunglasses or watches can be an effective way to get the attention of searchers in aircraft, on top of a ridge, hillside or clearing.

Consider where you want your signal to go by practicing reflecting the sun’s rays off a nearby object in the line of sight of where you want your signal to be seen.

Use your free hand as a sight line and create the 3 short, then 3 long, then 3 short signals, which is the internationally recognized SOS signal for help. Don’t forget to keep adjusting your position as the sun moves across the sky. Signaling using a mirror can take some practice, but it could save your life!

Many searches take place on the ground, with dedicated searchers hiking through the bush trying to find you. If you have an emergency signaling whistle, you can blast it 3 times, take a break, blast 3 times again and continue to do this. If there are ground search and rescue members within hearing distance, they will locate you. Remember, to stop blasting occasionally, so you can hear the searchers responding to your calls.

Hide and seek, with a ‘twist’

Remember, search and rescue is like a very big game of ‘hide and seek’, except this time you ‘want to be found’. So help the searchers by carrying the proper signaling devices, know how to use them properly and answer the searchers’ calls.


Regardless of the amount of preparation, distress situations can still occur. Informing a responsible party of your “Trip Plan” is one method to notify search and rescue (SAR) authorities should you become overdue.

Your chance of a successful outcome increases if your call is made as soon as possible. As an essential part of your survival kit, you should consider carrying some sort of device to call or alert others in an emergency situation. Whatever you choose, it should be compatible with the activity and area in which you are operating. Know the capabilities and the limitations of the equipment you are planning to use as your lifeline to survival.

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Cellular Phones

Cell phones can enable rapid, two-way communication with rescue authorities. To ensure that they perform as expected, consider:

  • Is there cellular coverage in the area you will be travelling? Check with your service provider before you go. Most publish their coverage maps online. Even in an area with good coverage, physical obstacles like steep terrain can block the signal. A cell phone may not be a suitable primary emergency alerting device.
  • Is “911” service available? In certain regions of Canada, 911 service is not available to landline or cellular users. Ensure you carry direct-dial numbers for the emergency services in your travel area.
  • Will your cell encounter environmental extremes (e.g. very hot or very cold temperatures, dust, high humidity)? Is there a risk of dropping it into water, or onto rocks? Most cell phones are not designed for rugged outdoor use. It is advisable to keep the phone in a waterproof bag. If there is an emergency, your phone will be dry.
  • How long do the batteries typically last, considering the temperatures you are likely to encounter? It is advisable to keep the phone turned off, If there is an emergency, your phone will have a full charge.
  • Is the cell phone equipped with a global positioning system (GPS) chip, and is it activated? If so, you should know how to get GPS coordinates off of it to give to search and rescue if you become lost or injured. Cellular companies may also be able to determine your approximate location by the cellular towers that are receiving your signal. However, don’t rely upon these features as the sole means of determining your location.

Depending on the terrain and difficulty of your excursion, it may also be worth considering satellite based communications devices.

Satellite Telephones

Sat phones are usually more versatile than cell phones, since they are not limited by the availability of ground-based cellular networks. They are also particularly useful in that they permit real-time, two-way communication. Again, to ensure they perform as expected, consider:

  • Is there good satellite coverage in the area you will be travelling? Check with your service provider before you go. Unlike cell phones, most sat phones require the user to be outside, or somewhere with a clear view of the sky.
  • Calls placed from a sat phone must include an area code, so “911” services cannot be reached. You must carry direct-dial numbers for emergency and SAR services for the region of travel. Also, toll-free numbers may not be compatible with some sat phone services. Check in advance.
  • Is the model of satellite telephone designed for a rugged environment? Some handsets are more robustly constructed than others, and may be water, dust, and shock resistant.
  • Battery life should also be carefully researched, and spares carried.
  • What other potentially useful features does the sat phone have? Can it calculate or display your position, or send and receive data? Check with your service provider.

406 MHz Beacons

Since its inception in 1982, the International Satellite System for Search and Rescue (, has been linking those in distress with search and rescue responders around the world.

The COSPAS-SARSAT system has three key components:

  • the emergency beacons that transmit a distress signal;
  • the satellites that capture and calculate the location of the distress signals ; and
  • the ground stations and data distribution network that relays the distress alerts to the appropriate rescue coordination centres worldwide.

The key attribute for modern COSPAS-SARSAT beacons is their ability to transmit a digitally-encoded signal on 406 MHz. When properly registered with the Canadian Beacon Registry (, SAR authorities will also know who is in distress, in addition to their location. 406 MHz beacon registration is therefore a critical step in getting the most out of the COSPAS-SARSAT system.

Aside from the initial cost to purchase a 406 MHz emergency beacon, there is no subscription fee for COSPAS-SARSATmonitoring, nor is there any fee for registering it with the Canadian Beacon Registry.

Types of 406 MHz Emergency Beacons

There are three types of COSPAS-SARSAT emergency beacons, each designed for a specific purpose. All 406 MHz emergency beacons are also equipped with a secondary homing signal on 121.5 MHz, which helps rescuers locate the beacon in conditions of darkness or reduced visibility. Many 406 MHz beacons are also capable of transmitting GPS coordinates along with the distress signal, which truly takes the “search” out of “search and rescue”.

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)—Personal Use

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are specifically designed to be light-weight, portable, and to withstand the elements. They are triggered manually using a simple two-step process, which helps prevent accidental activations. While intended primarily for use by those working and recreating on the ground or inland waters (e.g. hiking, canoeing), pilots and mariners are also using PLBs on board aircraft and boats as personal distress alerting devices. Sometimes these PLBs are marketed as “Survival ELTs” or “Survival EPIRBs”.

Police forces across Canada respond to SAR bincidents triggered by PLBs that occur on the ground, or on inland lakes and rivers within their jurisdiction. Specially trained ground SAR volunteers may also be called upon to assist. Parks Canada’s public safety specialists are responsible for ground SAR within national parks.

Pilots and passengers who carry PLBs on aircraft should confirm that their Canadian Beacon Registry record reflects this use, to ensure that the appropriate air SAR response (Canadian Forces or CASARA) is coordinated.

Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) – Maritime Use

Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) transmitting on a primary frequency of 406 MHz are required on ships, fishingvessels and tugboats above a certain size andweight, as outlined in the Canada Shipping Act andassociated regulations. Class 1 EPIRBs may be activated manually, or automaticallywhen they come in contact with water. They are also designed to float free from a sinking ship. Class 2 EPIRBs can only be activated manually. Vessels are not required by law to carry an EPIRB (e.g. small pleasure craft) are encouraged to do so voluntarily.
The Canadian Coast Guard, assisted by the Canadian Forces, respond to maritime SARincidents within Canada’s ocean jurisdiction and in the Canadian waters of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence System. Volunteers of the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary may also be called upon to assist. Response to marine SAR incidents that occur on Canada’s inland lakes and rivers is the responsibility of the local police, who may also call upon SAR volunteer teams to assist.

Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs) – Aviation Use

Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs) are purpose-built for aviation use. An ELT is fixed to an aircraft’s structure, usually near the tail, and is automatically activated by the force of a crash. The ELTs can also be manually activated, including a cockpit-mounted switch required for a 406 MHz installation. Two types of ELTs are currently available to aircraft owners: analog units which transmit on a primary frequency of 121.5 MHz; and the digital 406 MHz units. As of February 1, 2009, analog 121.5 MHz ELTs are no longer monitored by satellite, and do not therefore provide early alerting or a satellite-derived location for an aircraft in distress. The requirements for using ELTs on aircraft are specified in the Canadian Aviation Regulations.

The Canadian Forces is responsible for responding to search and rescue incidents involving aircraft, including those incidents signalled by an ELT alert. Volunteers from the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association may also be called upon to assist.

Other Sat Tech

There are a number of other commercial satellite-based technologies now available to Canadians that include a function for signalling emergencies. Many are designed primarily for locating and/or monitoring the status of people, vessels, aircraft, or vehicles, with distress alerting provided as a secondary capability.

Most of these devices acquire and then re-broadcast their GPS position through a commercial satellite system. Many also offer the capability to send these periodic GPS location reports to a data server – essentially creating an “electronic breadcrumb trail” that can be monitored remotely through the Internet or an electronic messaging system.

In addition to the cost to purchase these devices, a subscription fee is usually charged by the system provider for access to the satellites and the related data distribution and alerting services. When an emergency alert is transmitted, the commercial service provider also assumes the responsibility for contacting the appropriate search and rescue authorities on behalf of the customer.

As of June 2009, some of the satellite-based tracking and emergency alerting products sold by Canadian-based companies include:

If you’re considering these alternative technologies for SAR alerting, consider:

  • What is the extent of satellite coverage in the area where you will be using the device?
  • Is the device designed for the environment in which it is going to be used most often (e.g. aviation, maritime, ground and inland waters), and to what standard(s)?
  • Is it approved for use in Canada?
  • What is the battery life, and what is the optimum operating temperature range?
  • Does the device have to successfully receive a GPS position to determine its location, or can its location be calculated through other means?
  • Does it have a secondary homing signal that search and rescue units can use to pinpoint your position (e.g. at night or in low visibility)?
  • Is the satellite system itself, and message traffic, monitored continuously by the service provider? In other words, will any problems or outages with the system be promptly detected and remedied?
  • Is the company’s emergency dispatch centre (if applicable) well-acquainted with Canada’s SAR system, and does it have the appropriate contact numbers for your area? If the dispatch centre is located outside your region, or outside Canada, toll-free numbers for local emergency services may not work. You may need to provide the company with the appropriate direct-dial emergency numbers, including area code, for your region.

As the technologies available for SAR alerting continue to develop and grow, so too has confusion regarding the capability and limitations of related safety devices, including those that also use the term, “beacon”

Avalanche transceivers

Avalanche tranceivers are critical safety devices that should be worn by people working, travelling, or recreating in avalanche-prone areas. Since survival after being buried in an avalanche is usually measured in minutes, rescue must be carried out by other people close by who were not buried. By homing in on the signal transmitted by an avalanche tranceiver, those who are buried can hopefully be located and dug out, before they run short of breathable air.

These tranceivers should not be confused, however, with 406 MHz COSPAS-SARSAT beacons like PLBs, ELTs, and EPIRBs, or any of the alternative locating devices currently on the market. Avalanche transceivers cannot be detected by COSPAS-SARSAT satellites, overflying aircraft, or even heard by the human ear. They are not designed, nor are they suitable for distress alerting.

Family Radio Service (FRS) & General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) radios and beacons

These popular portable radios are now used in virtually every outdoor activity, and are an easy and effective means of maintaining short-range communications within members of the same group. However, FRS and GMRS frequencies are not universally monitored by emergency services personnel. While some parks and resorts have designated certain FRS and GMRS channels for emergency purposes, the public should not have any general expectation of being able to send a distress message using these radios. They should not therefore be relied upon as an emergency communications device.

Similarly, emergency beacons that transmit on FRS or GMRS frequencies are not monitored by search and rescue authorities, unless there is specific information that a distress situation exists, and that an FRS/GMRS beacon is being used. As these FRS/GMRS beacons are very rare, few search and rescue teams are equipped or trained to locate them.

Maritime Survivor Locator Devices (MSLDs)

Maritime Survivor Locator Devices, or MSLDs, are short-range beacons most commonly used by personnel working on ships or offshore oil and gas platforms. They are compact beacons worn on a lifevest or floatation suit, and may be manually or water-activated. Transmitting a low-powered radio signal (e.g. 121.5 MHz), MSLDs are intended for short-range homing. Frequently called “man overboard” beacons, they indicate the direction towards a person who has fallen into the water, which is particularly useful during rescue operations in heavy seas or darkness. MSLDs are not, however, designed or intended to be a primary distress alerting device, nor are they required to meet the minimum standards for a COSPAS-SARSAT PLB or EPIRB.

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