Woman calling for help next to a casualty

5 ways to get help in an emergency

When the worst happens and you need help – NOW – there are different ways you can communicate your emergency.

Think about what information you need to get across, especially if you’re in the outdoors. Where EXACTLY are you? In a building – the room name or number, floor and in the outdoors – a grid reference is perfect. You can use the acronym LIONEL to get information ready before you call. This includes Location, Incident, Other Services required, Number of casualties, Extent of injuries and Location checked and confirmed again. Read more about LIONEL in this blog.

In the outdoors, a grid reference is the most reliable way pinpoint where you are in the UK. You can find out more about it and download the free app from Ordnance Survey here. This will give you two letters and 6 or more numbers which will help emergency services identify exactly where you are. Anywhere on planet earth, you can also use What3Words although not all emergency services use this at present.

Here are 5 different ways you can get help in an emergency:

Option 1: Phone 999 or 112.

Both 999 and 112 go to the Emergency Control Centre. Ask for the service you require – Ambulance, Police, Fire or Coastguard. The Police control Mountain Rescue call outs and the Coastguard control RNLI call outs. 112 is an internationally recognised number for emergency services which works throughout Europe and many other countries.

A man in a field using a mobile phone
In remote settings where you don’t have a lot of signal – or you don’t have a enough battery for a call – you can text 999 to get help.

Option 2: Text 999

If you have very little battery power and don’t think it will last during a phone call, you can text 999. In a remote environment, such as in the mountains, you may not be able to make a phone call but you may be able to send a text as they need less bandwidth to be sent. The problem with calls is that you need to ensure you’ll have proper reception during the length of the call. Sometimes signal quality is simply not good enough to allocate the necessary bandwidth for a voice call, but you can still send/receive texts because the bandwidth you need for that is really narrow.

This is called Emergency SMS service and was originally set up to let deaf, hard of hearing and speech-impaired people in the UK send an SMS text message to the UK 999 service where it will be passed to the police, ambulance, fire rescue, or coastguard. And it’s great for everyone with no battery power or signal too!

How does it work? You need to pre-register your phone number beforehand in order to use the facility….Simply open up a new message, in the ‘recipient’ box put 999. In the message box type ‘Register’ then press ‘Send’. You’ll receive a message to confirm you want to register. Reply ‘yes’ and you’re done! It takes less than a minute to register and once you’ve registered, you’ll be able to text 999. If you upgrade your phone but keep the number, you’ll stay registered as it’s the phone number that is registered, not the phone itself. Find out more about this service and how to register your phone number here.

Option 3: Whistle or torch

In the outdoors, there are two internationally recognised distress calls that you can use with a whistle, horn or torch. Whistle and horn sounds travel further and are better at getting people’s attention. Torches and other light sources are good at pin pointing your position when people are looking in your direction. Another advantage of a whistle is that the batteries don’t run out! You can use one or both of the following distress signals:

  1. Emergency Distress signal. 6 short blasts on a whistle or flashes on a torch tells someone you are in distress and need urgent help. They respond with 3 short blasts. You both repeat this every minute or so and gradually the person can home in on your location by following the sound.
  2. SOS – Save our Souls. This is a pattern that spells out SOS in Morse code. The pattern is 3 dots, 3 dashes then 3 more dots. In practice this may be translated into 3 short blasts on a whistle followed by 3 long blasts on the whistle then 3 short blasts again.
A marine radio with Channel 16 selected.
A marine radio with emergency Channel 16 selected. The red ‘distress’ button is bottom right on this model.

Option 4: VHF Marine Channel 16

Channel 16 VHF (156.8 MHz) is a marine VHF radio frequency designated as an international distress frequency. They are used for distress, urgency and safety priority calls and may also carry routine calls used to establish communication before switching to another working channel. Hand held VHF radios are also used by kayakers and small boaters.

There are two ways a VHF Marine radio can help you in an emergency:

  1. Pick up the handset and press the ‘PTT’ control on the side of the handset and call for help. The accepted language is to say “May Day, May Day, May Day, This is (name of boat), (name of boat) (name of boat), We have an emergency – then name the emergency such as sinking, fire on board, man overboard, medical emergency etc. The call is received by the Coastguard who will then liaise with you on your location and problem and send help. By simply using the radio on Channel 16, every other vessel in the area will hear your distress call and can also respond if nearby.
  2. Press the red Distress button. Next to the radio, there is often, but not always, a small red button with ‘DSC’ or ‘Distress’ written on it. Pressing this will send a distress signal to the nearest Coastguard Station and to all vessels within usually a 15 mile radius of you. The signal sent will alert the receiving radios to your GPS location as well as your distress. You need to press the button twice. The first time you press it , it will light up and ask you what kind of emergency you have. There is a drop-down menu that appears where you can select the emergency such a fire on board, man overboard, medical emergency, sinking etc. Pressing the button without selecting a type of emergency still send your ‘distress’ signal but as a general distress rather than a specific one from the list. Either way, you’ll get a response and help will come.

Option 5: Shout!

Before we had all the technology outlined above, people used to shout for help – and it worked. It still works! In an emergency your adrenalin filled voice will carry further than you think. Also, don’t assume there’s no-one around. If you’re out enjoying the hills, park or woodland, someone else might be as well. Keep shouting for help on a regular basis. Never, ever give up!

Be prepared – before anything happens – by following these simple rules:

  1. Always plan for the worst and hope for the best!
  2. Register your phone number for 999 text service NOW by reading this guide .
  3. Get first aid trained and get an appropriate first aid kit for your activities.
  4. Get trained in navigation and weather reading if you go out into the hills or sea regularly.
  5. Always let people know where you are going and what to do if they don’t hear from you. Include your chosen route, parking spot, vehicle registration and clothing colours if appropriate.
  6. Check you have enough battery power for phones, torches and spares.
  7. Check you have additional clothing layers, water and food in case you need to wait for emergency services.

Get prepared – get trained!

Just going through the ‘What If’s in your mind and how you would respond to an emergency helps you be better prepared. Being aware of the different methods as outlined above should make you more confident of your ability to respond in an emergency. We cover emergency procedures in all of our first aid courses. Find out more about our range of first aid courses via this link.