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Signals for Help

Becoming separated and not knowing where you are is a rough experience when surviving a disaster. Understanding how to signal for help when cell phones aren’t an option will significantly increase your survival chances and allow first responders to discover you more quickly.

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Ground-to-air signals:

Spelling out a message on the ground is a way to alert any assistance in the air. The most widely recognized signal for this is “SOS.” It is best to mark your message on the ground with a material that is the opposite shade of which it lays. For example, if the floor is light grey concrete, it would be best to spell out your message with black material. 


Eye-level ground markers:

Creating eye-level ground markers is another signal you can make while stranded. If a search party is looking for survivors after an emergency, eye-level ground markers that stand out from their environment will tell them someone is or has been nearby. These signals can be clothes, banners, or any other material so long as it stands out against its surroundings. 



One of the furthest reaching, non-electronic signals is a mirror. A properly aimed mirror can shine a beam of sunlight up to 10 miles. This can catch the attention of people, vehicles, and even aircraft. Reflect the light directly at your target and sweep the mirror slowly up and down and left to right to add movement to your beam. 


Noise Makers:

The whistle is a great tool to have at your disposal for audible signaling. Three blares of a whistle are interpreted as a universal sign of distress. Although they are relatively short-ranged, a whistle can be a lifesaver if you are stuck in a specific area after a disaster. (three steady taps, repetitive taps)


Smoke Signals:

Smoke from a fire can billow up and be seen for miles. Constructing a fire and tending to it to create smoke clouds can quickly signal rescue teams to your location. However, be mindful of your surroundings as your fire may spread if left unchecked.

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Under Debris

Disasters such as earthquakes, tornados, and landslides, can cause buildings and structures to collapse. If you find yourself trapped inside a building or under debris, follow these steps to keep yourself safe until further help arrives:


  • Cover your mouth with a cloth, shirt, or fabric to filter the air you breathe.

  • Use a flashlight, whistle, or consistent, steady taps to alert first responders and rescuers to your location.

  • Conserve as much energy and oxygen as possible. Only shout as a last resort to avoid inhaling dust.


  • If you have your cell phone with you, call 911 or text your family or friends to let them know your location.


Stay calm and don’t panic.  Emergency workers will arrive soon to help.

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