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Signaling for Help

Do you know what the universal signal for help is?

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?

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.

Consider Your Signaling Position

It’s extremely important to put yourself in the ‘eyes of the rescuer’ when it comes to signaling for help. Ensure you can position yourself in the right location so the search and rescue members will be able to see your signal clearly and respond efficiently. Picking the right location for signaling can make all the difference in the world. Remember, the searchers won’t be able to see your smoke signals if you’re in a dense forest, as the smoke will get trapped underneath the tree cover, but if you choose an area that is visible from the air, water or nearby land, then they will spot your smoke signals easily. A clearing in the forest, on a hilltop, by a beach or lakeshore are all good choices.

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 & 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 or a hillside.

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.