Emergency Services in the mountains and at the sea

Calling for help in the city is simple and still brings emotions. You call 112 providing first and foremost your location, answer the dispatcher’s questions, and do not hang up first. The situation worsens with distance. In exotic and faraway places, in the mountains, at sea – an attempt to call for help might be a struggle for survival. Let’s try to think it over and prepare earlier.

Before moving on with your journey make a plan that divers call „escape route”. Write it down on a paper, not just in your head or on your phone. Complete it with local emergency numbers, embassy phone numbers, numbers to your close ones, helpful phrases in the local language or languages, „I need help”, „I need a doctor”, list of medicines (and their active substances) which, you or someone travelling with you need to take on regular basis. Have a „telephone a friend” contact to a person or several people back home that would be able to save you from oppression at any cost.

To calling for help in a case of an emergency (or even a disaster) adds up an ability to wait for the assistance (note that it may take even several days). Do make sure you know the basics of survival as building a shelter, finding water and making fire. But then again this is another subject.


Emergency services in the mountains  

Let’s start with the mountains. And the „win” situation when you have a phone! It is charged and did not get wet. To be in such a comfortable situation calling for help with a phone, you might want to take some steps beforehand – e.g. buy an extra battery or power bank and store them in a tightly closed container. Alternatively, regardless of the phone which you use every day, pack along an extra little phone with a separate SIM card and hold it securely packaged only for emergency situations.

Note the local mountain rescue numbers into your phone. You can also use international 112. If the range is low you can try to send a text message instead of calling. Message should contain information about location, number of casualties and what assistance is required. Text message is able to pass through even with low battery and weak range. It is always worth trying!

If you are able to speak to the dispatcher:

  • Try to give your location as exactly as possible (identification marks, coordinates, names)
  • Tell what happened
  • Tell how many people are in the group, how many of them are injured, what their state is (conscious or not), explain whether any help could be applied and what exactly
  • Tell whether at this moment you are still in immediate danger
  • Give your name
  • Give your phone number or numbers dispatcher can contact afterwards
  • Stay on line until the confirmation from the dispatcher
  • Never hang up first
Now a worse scenario – you have no phone.

You have either lost it or it got wet, the battery has unloaded and what can you do? (By the way there is an increase in the number of waterproof phones – it is worth to consider one. Just remember that they are not resistant to sea water).


Alpine signal

This is a method known for 200 years already. Signal can be acoustic or visual. You give it on a frequency six times per minute – so every 10 seconds. Then you wait for one minute for answer. The response signal should be two times slower – a flash or a sound every 20 seconds. What can you transmit such signals with? Whistle (you can have it in the buckle of a backpack or pack it separately), the flash from the camera, improvised instrument, screaming, flashlight etc. You can also light a fire – fire in the national park should alert that someone is waiting for help.


If you got lost far away from civilization and people

If we got lost far away in the mountains or in the desert is material for a separate book, but here is basic information. High efficiency method, as far as we can talk about- high efficiency in such circumstances, are „sun bunnies” – signals sent with the mirror. The best for that is a special mirror with a viewfinder, although if you have not packed it, it might work with any shiny object, for example a burnished metal cup or a piece of metal sheet. Such a flash sent in the direction of the aircraft may be visible even from a distance of tens of kilometres. Remember that the higher you stand in the open space the better signal visibility is.

Other possibilities?

Three bonfires kindled in the shape of a triangle. They must be prepared in advance, protected from the rain and other water and quickly light up when you hear the approaching aircraft. Does it sound implausible? You can succeed if you practise fast lighting of the fire! Bonfires during the day are the better signal the more smoke they produce – gather some green twigs, moss, a rubber and oil in the proximity.

Fire at night, smoke in the day – what else could be well seen from the air? Large chunks of bright colour fabric or film (e.g. the NRC film).

It worked! The optimistic version is that a helicopter is flying to you. If you need help, stand with your hands up. Do not swing; just keep your arms high, so that your silhouette looks like a letter Y (as YES). If this is mistake and you have not called for help, lift one arm up and the other point down diagonally, so that your silhouette resembles letter N (as NO).

If you are expecting help from the air, you should think earlier about securing space – as much as possible. Clear the space if it is possible and pin and tighten all light objects etc. Never approach the helicopter! Rescuers will come to you.


 Calling for help at sea

There are several different ways of calling for help at sea, starting with sending an emergency signal via satellite and establishing VHF communication, using pyrotechnics and to finish with the less conventional means such as Morse Code. Yet there is one, fixed and undisputable rule – our call for help has to be effective. This means that professional emergency services will be alerted as soon as possible about the threat and immediate rescue action will be taken. Moreover, rescue will come in a relatively short period of time knowing our exact or at least approximate geographical position. Service responsible for providing assistance at sea is SAR (Search & Rescue).

Satellite communication

When we find ourselves in a life-threatening situation we should begin crew actions with one or a combination of the most effective ways to call for help at sea. Each boat traveling on the open water (sea or ocean) is equipped with EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon). It is a kind of radio transmitter that sends alarm signal to a satellite and then to the nearest SAR unit, enabling to locate the boat in an emergency situation.

EPIRB can be activated manually or is activated automatically after contact with salt water. Through the radio transmitter it sends boat identification number, current position and (oin some systems) date and time of activation. It emits as well a flashing light, helping to find the approximate location. EPIRB is always installed in an easily accessible place to use it as soon as possible in a distress situation.

Another device SART has a supplementary function to EPIRB. It is a radar transponder –Search and Rescue Transponder, which should be activated together with beacon. Its function is to clarify the geographic location of the boat that calls for help, thus guiding the search and rescue units using the existing radar systems. The moment it is traced by a rescue boat radar it starts to send an alarm signal.

A good practice is to have a personal beacon – PLB (Personal Locator Beacon), which is a kind of combination of EPIRB and SART radar transponder. Main difference is that the transmitted data do not call for help to a specific vessel, but to an individual person whose personal data is encoded in the signal transmitted to the SAR units.

Speaking of using a satellite connection, a satellite phone should not, though unfortunately is forgotten. Calling for help is not its primary function, yet it can easily fulfil that task. You just call the SAR unit of your choice and they can take appropriate steps to provide help.


Another way to get in touch with emergency services is radio communication. A global security and alarm system GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety System) provides connectivity from anywhere in the world to onshore stations. As the name suggests main tasks of the system are:

  • Connectivity when in danger – ability to alert and communicate with rescue units and stations located in the vicinity of distress
  • Connectivity for safety – radio communication for emergency purposes and the safety of navigation, broadcasting maritime safety information (e.g. weather forecasts, navigational warnings)One of the subsystem components is VHF radio (Very High Frequency. It works within: 156.025 – 162.025 MHz that has been divided into channels 1-28 and 60-88 in order to facilitate it to users. To operate the VHF special qualifications confirmed by an appropriate certificate SRC (Short Range Certificate) and / or LRC (Long Range Certificate) are required.

Most important channels are:

6 and 11 – channel used during SAR actions (ship, helicopter, aircraft etc.)

13 – channel to maintain safety of navigation

16 – emergency channel / safety channel / general call channel,

70 – channel for digital communication

Let us, however, have a look at the specifics of VHF procedure to communicate with onshore station or other watercraft. There are four categories of messages that can be passed according to their importance:

  • URGENCY call (PAN-PAN),
  • ROUTINE call – in routine communication

Each call is qualified to the appropriate category by a preceding statement repeated three times. In case of life threatening situation we should always start communication with the word “Mayday”. Here is the template for such a communication started on channel 16:

THIS IS (name of the boat/ship) x3 //
MMSI (individual radio identification number) //
POSITION (latitude and longitude) //
(description of the events)//
(additional information) OVER

MMSI 2610000001//
POSITION 54 28 N 019 14 E//


It may happen that electronic system fails and we cannot use either satellite equipment or radio. It leaves us with the classic ways of calling for help at sea – pyrotechnics. Here are the types of signalling available. Keep in mind that their number is limited and they should be used only when other ships or aircrafts are within our sight.

Flare (red torch) – the primary mean of pyrotechnic on the yacht. After firing it gives a very bright red light for about 60 seconds. Keep it in hand on the leeward side. Do not stare into the flame, as this may harm your vision.

Parachute rocket – when launched into the sky it can reach height of 250-300 meters and burns with a bright red light for at least 45 seconds. Rocket should be fired slightly against the wind in order to place it above the ship.

Floating smoke – a floating buoy giving a dense orange smoke. Dense smoke, in particular orange one, has always been a way to summon help. A Smoke buoy can be useful in action with a helicopter. The pilot can ask us to ignite it and throw into the water (always on the leeward side) in order to see how the wind blows at the surface of the water.

Unconventional resources to call for help at sea

A few other unconventional means to call for help at sea are worth mentioning. They can help us to effectively alert rescue services and help to save our lives. Below are some ways that can be used in emergencies on a yacht.

Torch – staggering large circles with a flashlight in the direction to indicate our position and cry for help.

SOS (Save Our Souls) –a sequence of signals (3 short / 3 long / 3 short) of light or sound.

Mirror – reflecting sun rays in the mirror to indicate our position and cry for help,

Arms – slowly and repeatedly raising and lowering arms outstretched to each side,

Signal trumpet – continuous and uninterrupted sound (the same trumpet is used by e.g. supporters at football matches)

These ways and methods of calling for help at sea saved lives of many sailors. Remember to check up all the systems on the boat before leaving for a cruise and make sure the pyrotechnics on the yacht is not overdue.