What is the International Emergency Signal for Distress?

There are somoe things in life that should be considered essential knowledge for everybody, as they can be the difference between life or death, such as knowing how to call for help in an emergency situation. 

No matter the situation, or the place in the world where it is taking place, there is something that will always alert others that you are in danger, and need help: the international emergency distress signal. Simple, but knowing it can save your life, so it’s important. 

What is the international emergency signal for distress

But…what exactly is the international emergency signal for distress? How to you signal it? Does it work in every situation? 

We’re going to answer these questions and give you all of the basics about the international emergency signal for distress. So if that sounds like something you might want to learn about, then keep reading! 

The International Emergency Signal for Distress

The international emergency signal for distress, is essentially just three of any signal usually used to indicate an emergency. So for example, three shots, or three blasts of a whistle. Maybe three flashes of a mirror, or three fires. 

No matter where you are in the world, or what the situation is, a clear signal sent out three times, repeatedly, will always indicate that you are in distress, in an emergency situation, and in need of help. 

A very clear international distress signal is to say “mayday” three times in a row, repeatedly. 

The reason why this international emergency signal is essentially just three of anything, is that emergency signals have always been repeated three times so that they don’t get confused with anything else.

It also marks the three beats of S O S. (SOS being the international morse code for distress signals). 

Different Types of Emergency Distress Signals

Depending on the emergency situation that you find yourself in, you will have to use the international emergency signal for distress in one way or another, depending on what resources you have available, and what forms of communication you have access to. 

Here are some of the most common examples of emergency distress signals sent out in different types of situations: 

Using Fires

Lighting a fire is a great way to signal for help, as the flames will be highly visible at night, and during the day the smoke will pinpoint your location. Ideally, you should build three fires, and if you can, do so in the shape of a triangle, as this is the ultimate international signal of distress. 

Make sure that you build the fires somewhere high up, above any trees or bushes that might get in the way of visibility, and that you have enough fuel to keep them going. 

You should also use some green foliage to burn during the day, as this will create thicker smoke. 

Ground-to-air Signals

If you can’t build a fire, then you will have to use other ground-to-air signals, such as building something visible, or motioning with your hands and body. 

If building something, use rocks, tree branches, and anything you can find, to create large signs (at least 3m big).

If motioning with your body, make sure to get as high up as possible, and move in an exaggerated way so that your message can be interpreted. 

There are many online guides as to specific body and arm movements, as well as some examples of what kind of signs to create on the floor. It’s worth learning a bit more about these, just in case! 

Using A Mirror or Torch

Light is a great way to signal distress, especially at night, when it is most visible. Flashing a torch three times is one of the most basic ways of signalling distress in an emergency situation, and if you don’t have a torch, try using a mirro to reflect light. (This is why mirrors are often part of a survival kit! Plus they can help you start a fire). 

Morse code

Using morse code is one of the most trustworthy ways of communicating a signal for distress. When using morse code, you will essentially be communicating an SOS.

The code for this is 3 short dots, 3 long dots, and 3 short dots again. This is why international emergency distress signals are three of anything, they mirror the morse code for help. 

Using A Whistle or Loud Blast of Sound

Using a whistle, or a similarly loud noise or sound, can be a good way to ask for help in an emergency situation. With a whistle, blow it three times, then pause, then blow it three times, then pause, and so on. 

International Maritime and Aviation Distress Signals

International emergency signals for distress are mostly used in maritime and aviation situations, with most of the widespread methods originating from marine regulations. 

Regardless of whether you’re on sea, in the air, or on land, if you’re sending a radio distress signal or message, the officially sanctioned method is to repeat mayday three times. 

And just so that you have a bit more information on this, here is the full procedure for an emergency mayday message:

  1. Speak mayday three times in a row. This is the distress signal, which can then be followed by the distress message. 
  2. Name of the vessel or person in distress
  3. Position and location, as accurate as possible
  4. Nature of the situation and condition (fire, sinking, injured, etc…)
  5. Specify the number of people in need of immediate help
  6. Specify the assistance needed
  7. Any other important details (for example if there is a time limit) 

You should then repeat the distress signal, and the distress message, over and over, as many times as you can until it is received or acknowledged by someone. 

Final Thoughts

If you are ever in an emergency situation, just remember that the international signal for distress is any signal for help repeated three times in a row.

Whether this is three fires, three whistles, three flashes of a torch, or repeating mayday three times. SOS is three of anything! 

Eric Willis
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