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Your Easy Guide to Emergency Survival Whistles and How to Use Them

What is an Emergency Whistle or Survival Whistle?

If you get separated from your group, you have a crisis, you are lost, or you need help from anyone nearby, an emergency or survival whistle is one of my favourite items.  It’s a rugged, small and amazingly loud whistle, and will never run out of batteries or network!  I highly recommend you buy them in bulk and have them throughout your life.  While many crises are avoidable, they can still occur, and a whistle is an amazing device to reach out to those around you.  Remember, three whistle blasts if you need help and one blast as a reply or if you are searching for someone.  Read on for everything you need to know!

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What is an Emergency Whistle or Survival Whistle?

If you get separated from your group, you have a crisis, you are lost, or you need help from anyone nearby, an emergency or survival whistle is one of my favourite items.  It’s a rugged, small and amazingly loud whistle, and will never run out of batteries or network!  I highly recommend you buy them in bulk and have them throughout your life.  While many crises are avoidable, they can still occur, and a whistle is an amazing device to reach out to those around you.  Remember, three whistle blasts if you need help and one blast as a reply or if you are searching for someone.  Read on for everything you need to know!

What is an Emergency Whistle Made of?

An emergency whistle is typically made of plastic so it won’t rust or freeze to your lips in cold weather.  They are often orange in colour for higher visibility.  You can easily attach them just about anywhere and to anything.  And, you should be able to use it just about any conditions!

How do you use an Emergency Whistle?

Simple: Put the whistle up to your lips and blast it!  The harder your lungs expel the air through the whistle, the louder the sound and farther reaching the alert.

Using a Whistle is Very Public

Unlike a conversation between two people sitting inside a car or speaking over the phone, the use of a whistle is very public and can reach a lot of people.  Those people may interpret whistle calls in different ways.  In line with the expression to not “cry wolf” (meaning to not be calling for help unnecessarily, whereby people cease to act on it), I recommend you do not blast whistles for fun.

Establish a Protocol of When to Use the Whistle and the Meanings

If you are part of a group or out with your family, establish ahead of time when to use your whistles but even if you forget or your children are pretty young and can’t remember the agree number of blasts, no blast is a bad blast if it helps alert others.  That said, while there are at least three whistle communication standards, I recommend going with the first:

1. Common Practice: 1 blast = generally “how are you?” or “where are you?” query; 2 blasts = “I’m fine”; 3 blasts = “Help!”.  This type of thing is important if you have search and rescues officials looking for you.  Who will know who the victim is if everyone is calling out the same call?  So, it’s best that the victim calling for help is using the standard three blasts and the searches and anyone responding is calling out a single blast.  You could have multiple parties trying to come to the aid of a victim. In a search and rescue context, as the victim, I’d be doing frequent triple blasts.  As a searcher, I’d be using a single blast.

2. Morse Code: Morse code was a standard radio or telegraph communication language in the early 20th century and consisted of short (•) and long (―) blips used at sea, radio signal, light signals, or by cabled communications. 

One of the most famous Morse Code sayings is “SOS” (Save our Souls), often used in the shipping world when in great distress or sinking. It’s fine and dandy to know how to perform Morse Code for SOS on your whistle (•••, ―――, •••), but fewer and fewer people know Morse Code these days and how you reply to them if they actually reply back in Morse Code with: “•―, •―•, •, pause, ―•――, ―――, ••―, pause, ―――, ―•―, •―, ―•――”.  Yikes, what does that mean?  It means A-r-e  y-o-u  o-k-a-y?”.  If you want to use SOS in Morse Code, go ahead as hopefully someone will hear it but I think it’s better to keep it simple.

Courtesy of our friends at Wikipedia.

3. There are other signals such as Mountain Distress Signals but the standard varies from region to region.  It is typically three or six blasts to call for help.

My priority is that someone hears me and understands that I’m calling for help and not just playing around or calling a dog.  I suggest keeping to the:

1 blast = “How are you?” or “Where are you?”

2 blasts = “I’m fine.”

3 blasts = “Help!”

How does a Whistle Fit into Emergency Management?

In the field of emergency management, crisis communication is the key ability to be in contact with those who should/might be able to help you or provide you the means to reach those you are trying to find.  In a crisis, you need to be able to communicate.  Whistles are a fantastic means to alert anyone within your vicinity and these little devices are a key element in your range of communication options.  Ensure you have the range you need to be able to reach people far and near.

Please keep in mind that a whistle is one form of your crisis communication and the larger emergency management picture. You need to identify your risks, and then focus on preparedness, prevention, mitigation, response and resilience.

Why is Whistle Loudness Measured in Decibels?

Decibels (or “dB”) are units to measure the intensity of sound.  The more decibels, the louder.  Whistle loudness is generally measured in decibels and there seems to be company pride in producing a higher decibel rating than the competition or between whistle models of the same size. 

Actual whistle decibel ratings will also depend on how and/or how hard one blasts the whistle.  Blowing more softly will produce a quieter sound.

Should you Pay Attention to the Claimed Decibel Ratings of a Whistle?

Yes and no.  Most good quality modern whistles produce a high decibel sound.  Yes, there are some extreme whistles but they might also be bulky.  If a bulky whistle is not a problem or inconvenience, yes, the Windstormis a great whistle. 

Super cheap whistles or children’s toy whistles will often not produce as high a sound but in a pinch, they might be enough to alert someone closer by.

The important thing is that you are heard by anyone you are seeking to find you.  I would recommend sticking with quality whistles.

What is the Loudest Whistle?

The one you have will always be better than none.  Ideally the one you have is of good quality and capable to being heard a ways away. 

There are dozens and dozens and dozens of whistle options.  At full lung blast, most quality whistles produce around 100dB.  That’s seriously loud.  Yes, some models can be higher and the Windstorm is one of the louder models.  That said, I’m a big fan of the Fox 40 and the standard marine grade whistles, so that’s what I mostly have.

My biggest concern is that most of time, we don’t have one at all!  If you have multiple types of whistles with you in your time of crisis, yes, using the loudest one is likely the better option. 

The most important thing is actually having a whistle! What good is a whistle if you don’t have it with you, where and when you need it?

What is a Pealess Whistle and is Pealess Important?

You Probably Grew Up Using a Pea Whistle

Many whistles from the old days had a little ball inside the main chamber of the whistle.  If you shake a whistle and can see a little ball (the pea) rattling inside, that means it’s a pea whistle.  A pea whistle can be a very loud and effective whistle, and a pea whistle can produce a distinctive fluctuation in its sound due to that pea circulating in the main chamber.  Pea whistles are popular for use by referees in sports like soccer, football, and hockey.

What are the Downsides of Using a Pea Whistle?

The downside of the pea whistle is that many of them stop working if the whistle gets wet or gets gunky.  If, for example, you are in the rain or have fallen out of a boat, you likely want your whistle working at near 100% even if it’s raining or you are being dunked by splashing water.  Therefore, most whistle makers have gone what is called “pealess”, meaning there is no pea inside the whistle.  These pealess whistles are therefore still very functional when wet, even very wet.  Do a test next time you take a shower or have a bath and see if your pealess whistles still perform.  I suggest a gentle test blast of your whistle since your bathroom walls will make a loud whistle sound very loud!

Yes, pealess is generally better but no whistle is a bad whistle if it still manages to get you the help you need.  If your daughter’s Dora the Explorer whistle manages to reach other people nearby, mission accomplished!!! 

This cheap so-called 5-in-1 is a Jack of all trades, master of none. It has a pea whistle. While it can blast a decent sound, getting the whistle wet or gunky could prevent the whistle from working properly.

A Pea Whistle May Actually be Illegal in Some Jurisdictions

For use in a boating environment, many countries or jurisdictions require that the mandatory whistle be pealess.  National or state/provincial regulations will often require or strongly recommend having a whistle in the craft and/or attached to each lifejacket (PFD or personal floatation device).   Transport Canada, the United States Coast Guard and the European Union have various legislation surrounding life jackets and whistles.  Even if the legislation does not specify that a whistle be “pealess”, why waste the opportunity to have a working whistle when you need one.  Always check your national and state/provincial requirements regarding whistles and whistle types.

Every life jacket should have a whistle. If it didn’t come with one, figure out a way to attach one.

What are SOLAS Whistles?

SOLAS stands for the International Convention for the “Safety Of Life At Sea” and it’s the international maritime treaty aiming to set global safety standards in the merchant ship world, i.e. the non-military world.  Just about every country is a signatory.  So what is a SALOS Whistle or a SOLAS Approved Whistle?  I have yet to find a legal definition of a what would constitute a SOLAS Whistle or a SOLAS Approved Whistle but research points towards it being construed as rust-proof and unimpeded from proper function due to being wet or having been immersed in water.

Why do Many Countries Require Having a Whistle in Certain Circumstances?

Because whistles have proven their amazing value and benefit time and time again.  That sound can carry amazing distances and get you that help you need or alert others.  You can help searchers find you far more quickly. 

Where can you Attach a Whistle or How Can You Carry a Whistle?

Just about anywhere!!!  Key chains, car keys, back packs, and purses are all good places.  Given how small and important a whistle can be, it’s important to attach it to something.  You need to have your whistle when and where you will need it.  Having a whistle always nearby improves your chances of having access to it that rare time (hopefully) that you need it.  Many backpack chest strap buckles even have a small whistle built in!

Among the many whistles we have, I have a whistle attached to all our car keys and our home key chains.  If my car goes off the road and I am pinned inside, I should still be able to reach the car key and the whistle attached to it.  If I’m walking in the parking to my vehicles, holding my car key also means I have my whistle in case something rather sketchy happens.  You can add a whistle into your bicycle’s seat tool pouch.  My favourite whistle can even clip onto a waste band.

Attach it to a key chain, backpack, rucksack, running belt, water bottle holder, belt loop, I don’t care. The key thing is having it.

Pack a Few Whistles for Outdoor Activities!

Firstly, you should always alert people as to your route and time of return when engaged in backcountry or remote activities.  Since an incident can happen and especially if I am solo and I fall while mountain biking, hiking, cross-country skiing or downhill skiing, that micro whistle attached to my backpack and the quality whistle always attached to my keys will help me call out for help.  The Gatineau Park just outside Ottawa, Canada, has some amazing cross-country skiing, trail running and mountain biking trails, but one can be on very remote trails intentionally or unintentionally.  That whistle is a great way of reaching out to your buddies or any stranger to say: “Hey, I could use some help over here!”

Your Whistle Should Have a Safety Lanyard or Breakaway Lanyard

The lanyard (or cord) should have a safety detach so it shouldn’t strangle the user.

In many circumstances, it’s helpful to have a whistle on a safer lanyard.  What’s a lanyard?  It’s a rope to which you attach a whistle or identification that loosely goes around your neck.  I highly recommend you purchase “safety lanyards” which reduce the risk of being strangled if the lanyard was to get caught on something.  A safety lanyard such as this one has a section that should detach and release the lanyard if it is jerked. 

Note that some lanyards are more of the detachable variety which can be less releasable than one deemed a breakaway.  “Detachable” lanyards might need to be un-clipped by hand for the lanyard to come apart.

How Many Whistles Should You Buy?

Buy them in bulk.  Trust me.  Over time, you will likely loose them here and there, or you’ll add them to more and more locations and items.  I have bought many Fox 40 Classic and Fox 40 Micro whistles as they are very loud and sturdy, but my preferred quality bulk whistles are these marine grade ones.  

Kids and Whistles

For older children, put a whistle on a safety lanyard and give one to each child.  Talk with your child/children about when, where, and why to use it.  Discuss how many blasts you want them to use.  Practice at home where you won’t scare people.  Get your child comfortable with using the whistle and capable of really giving the whistle a loud blast in case of an emergency.  Make sure you have a whistle, too, since you need one to reply or call them!

Also put a whistle in your child’s school bag so they could whistle for help if they needed to.  Just remember that if abductions are a big risk, it might be difficult for your child to access their whistle inside their backpack quickly.  The lanyard-based whistle should be a bit easier for a child to access in an emergency but a stronger adult might still prevent them from using it.  

Every Emergency Kit, First Aid Kit, and Bug-out Bag Should have Whistles

The packing list for all Emergency Kits, First Aid Kits, and Bug-out Bags should include multiple whistles.  When we go hiking, I grab our hiking emergency kit and it has enough whistles for our family of four to each carry one.  Add some to your first aid kits since you are in a crisis and might need to call for help.  A bug-out bag or grab-bag is a prepacked bag in case you need to flee you surrounding or only have moments to leave your structure.  Add some whistles to that packing list, too.  Checkout the Better Preparedness article on easy outdoor emergency kits!

In your outdoors emergency kit, make sure you pack a whistle for each person and hand them out for the outing.

The Alternatives: Voice, Radios and Phones?

You could say that there are many alternatives to whistles but everything has its pros and cons, and I will always maintain that the whistle is one of the best attention-grabbers and means of close proximity crisis communications.

Whistle versus Voice

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the  normal intelligible outdoor range of the male human voice in still air is 180m.  That sounds about right.  Many factors greatly reduce that distance such as wind, objects, obstructions, and other noise. 

Us humans have a limited number of times we can yell loudly until our vocal cords and throats will hurt.  If your rescue requires you to keep trying to alert someone in your vicinity for many hours or days on end, a whistle will be far more effective.  Keep blasting and blasting.

Whistle versus Walkie-Talkie

Walkie-Talkie will carry farther but it requires electrical battery power.  Walkie-talkies only work on the selected frequencies with people who also have their radios turned on, volume up, and on the right channel, many things that can go wrong.  Walkie-talkie range will also be impacted by structures (especially if indoors), topography (mountains, hills,…), and vegetation such as thick forest. 

Here’s a top-tip: Attach a whistle to each walkie-talkie so that you have a back-up crisis communications system. 

Whistle versus Mobile Phones

There are tremendous pros of having a working mobile phone, with the phone having battery power, with network coverage, and everyone’s numbers saved.  Remove one of those variables and you now have a problem.  There might be quite a few people (strangers) also within 1km you can’t phone.  A whistle is a great accompanier to each person’s phone.  

Can A Whistle Cause Hearing Damage?

Yes, potentially. 

This article is about emergency situations and I hope you nor I is frequently in need of blasting a whistle at the top of our lungs for a prolonged period.  I would be concerned about hearing damage if I was a sport referee constantly using my whistle. 

As it stands, I’ve hardly ever had to blast a whistle as if my life depended on it.  If I find myself one day in need of blasting my whistle, I can decide what strength is needed depending on the circumstances and surrounding environment.  Be careful in closed spaces if you want to test a whistle as it can really hurt your ears.

What Whistles Do I Recommend?

My favourite and in bulk: https://amzn.to/2VmuroF

Fox 40 whistles come in many models and I have many Classic and Micro Fox 40 whistles:

The classic Fox 40: https://amzn.to/2DvVJiA

                Fox 40 Micro: https://amzn.to/2GFJdPh

Fox 40 in bulk: https://amzn.to/2VmuroF

Windstorm: https://amzn.to/2VosgB6

Shoreline: https://amzn.to/2IFg4G5

Breakaway Lanyards: https://amzn.to/2GBJMsq

Share your Whistle Experiences in the Comments Section Below!

Share your favourite model of whistle and share your whistle story below.

Conclusion

An emergency whistle could be the best dollar for dollar emergency preparedness tool in existence.  Buy them, equip your life with them, plan with your contacts how to use them, and always have emergency whistles nearby.

Be safe and integrate whistles into your crisis preparedness and emergency management!  Remember:

1 blast = “How are you?” or “Where are you?”

2 blasts = “I’m fine.”

3 blasts = “Help!”

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