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Have you ever heard sirens going off by your home or in movies and wondered what they were for? If you were lost in the wilderness would you know how to signal for help? Understanding warning sirens and knowing how to signal for help are important facets of your emergency preparedness knowledge.


Most warning sirens were built after World War II and during the Cold War as an early warning system for missile attacks. These sirens are now used primarily as outdoor warning systems for violent weather. Sirens can save lives when used in combination with other warning devices. For example, in McAlester, Oklahoma, newly installed sirens were used to warn a large group of ball players at a softball complex of severe weather approaching. Because residents understood the siren’s warning and responded to it, there were no injuries even though several properties were damaged.

In order for emergency sirens to help you, you will need to know what the different sirens mean. You will also need to know when your area tests its emergency sirens. During the test you should hear two kinds of emergency sirens. The ATTACK warning sound is a wavering tone or siren that lasts 3 to 5 minutes. It can also be a series of short blasts on horns or other devices. This warning means that there has been a detected attack or missile launch against the United States. Due to federal regulations this signal cannot be used for any other purpose or have any other meanings. The ALERT or ATTENTION warning signal is a steady tone or signal from sirens, horns, etc. If you hear this signal you should turn on your radio or television and listen for emergency directions. In some tornado prone areas the alert siren means that a tornado has been sighted and you should seek shelter. You can contact emergency officials in your area today to find out specific instructions you should follow in case you hear an emergency siren in the future.


There are many situations in which you might need to signal for help, including being stranded on the side of the road or getting lost on a hike. To get help as quickly as possible, it is recommended to know common recognized emergency signals to alert others of your distress. Knowing these signals will also help you in providing aid to others. Signals are most effective when someone knows you are missing. Whenever you are traveling, the first step you should make is letting someone responsible know your route and arrival time. Then, if you don’t arrive on time, rescuers can quickly start looking for other signals to find you and give you the help you need.

Emergency Signals at Sea

Because it is difficult to be seen on the water, especially if you are away from a boat or larger, more visible object, you should try to remain with the boat and use these signals:

  • A parachute flare or hand flare showing a red light.
  • Rockets that throw off red stars at intervals.
  • Smoke signals giving off large volumes of orange smoke.
  • Signal by radio in the Morse code group SOS or the spoken word MAYDAY (do not use this except in life threatening emergencies).
  • Slowly raising and lowering your arms repeatedly.
  • Continuous sounding of whistle or siren (as contrasted to the ground signal in groups of 3).
  • Flames on the vessel (i.e. from the burning of an oily rag).
  • Fly the international flag code signal NC (if you have it).
  • Flying a square flag with a ball (or something resembling a ball) above or below it.
  • An ensign (flag) flown upside down.
  • A coat or article of clothing on an oar or mast.

If you get separated from the boat try to make yourself as visible as possible to passing boats and planes. You can do this by floating on your back spread eagle, trying to get bright colored clothing to float on the water near you (DO NOT use your life vest for this), or gathering debris and other materials around you. If you frequently venture out on the ocean consider carrying a floating signal with you.

Emergency Signals on Land

If you are lost on land you will need to create a signal to guide rescuers to you. This signal can be audio or visual. Visual signals are the most effective, but audible signals make a good secondary signal. Signals that indicate a need for help come in groups of three, while the responding signal from rescuers should be in groups of two. The following are universally recognized signals:

  • Three fires in a triangle pattern. When using fire as a method of signaling remember that bright fires are more easily seen at night, and smoky fires make a better signal in the day.
  • Newspaper or aluminum foil (reflective type emergency blankets will work) weighted down with rocks to make a large triangle.
  • Make letters that contrast with the ground color in a large clearing by using sticks, newspaper, branches, or stomping through the snow. These letters need to be at least 12 feet tall and the width of each line needs to be 2 feet. The following are recognizable signals:
    • SOS or HELP indicates a general need for help.
    • A large "I" indicates that someone is injured.
    • An "X" means you are unable to proceed.
    • An "F" indicates you need food and water.
  • Use a mirror to signal for help by using the sun to flash off it. Make the flashes in groups of three to indicate distress.
  • Take a cellular phone with you when you travel. Analog repeaters now cover many remote areas and you can reach 9-1-1 without any problems.
  • Using a whistle, make an unmistakable blast on it three times. Be sure to pause for a few seconds between each blast and for a few minutes between each group of three. (A whistle sound will carry further than your voice, about 1/2 to 2 miles).
  • Use 2 rocks or sticks to make a loud noise in groups of three. Follow the same pattern as for whistles.
  • If you have a gun with you, you can fire three shots into a hillside. If it is hunting season this signal will be best after dark when most hunters are not firing shots at game.
  • If you don‚Äôt have the energy to make large words or letters, when you hear planes or helicopters overhead lie out flat in a clearing or field in order to make the largest visible image for them.
  • Do everything you can to draw attention to yourself.

If you are on the side of the road, these signals indicate a need for help:

  • Putting up both the hood and trunk of your car.
  • Waving both hands wildly (so you are not mistaken as giving a friendly wave).
  • Point at passing cars with one hand, while the other hand is in the shape of a telephone receiver at your ear and you are mouthing help. This should alert passing motorists to call for help on cell phones or CB radio. If you are stranded in your car in a remote area you can try any of the other land emergency signals.

When you are lost or stranded, the most important thing for you to do is to decide on a course of action and follow it. If you think you know the way out stick to the course. If you don’t know the way, staying put and using signals is your best course. If you cannot stay still and wait for help, then follow these steps to get back to civilization.

  • Go downhill
  • Look for rivers, ravines, or roads and follow them
  • Travel in straight lines

Now that you know these signals, make sure you watch for them the next time you are traveling, and remember to review them often. You never know when your knowledge could save a life, maybe even your own!