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Handheld signaling

Jan 1, 2003

Sun the late afternoon of September 5, 1997, a single-engine plane carrying four men bound from Arizona to Mexico for a fishing trip encountered strong thunderstorm activity over Baja California. After being buffeted for an hour and then losing engine power, the pilot was forced to make a water landing in the Pacific Ocean.

Fortunately, none of the men was injured during the landing. They got out of the plane as it quickly sank. Their total gear inventory, salvaged from the rapidly flooding plane, included several type II PFDs; a type III PFD; a molded plastic ice chest; a set of swim fins, a snorkel, and a mask; and a duffel bag with assorted personal effects. Within this collection of gear the only signaling equipment was a single small flashlight. Fortunately, before ditching, the plane's pilot sent a brief distress message, and a search was launched by the Mexican coast guard. Within two hours of the plane's crash the four men heard a rescue helicopter performing a search. While clinging to their ice chest the four men attempted to attract the helicopter's attention using neon-colored swim fins and the rapidly failing flashlight. Having not spotted the men after 20 minutes of searching, the aircraft departed.

The four men then spent a long night treading water, alternately clinging to the ice cooler. They were thankful the water was warm, but they wondered what they should or could do next.

Being seen

Being seen is critical to being rescued, even with the apparent security of Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) and reliable satellite communications. An EPIRB distress message will bring searchers only to within two km (1.08 miles) of a beacon's location, with that last mile often being the toughest, especially if on-scene weather conditions are extreme, it's night, or if a rescue plane or ship has limited on-scene loiter time.

A person overboard faces a rescue dilemma similar to that of a crew of a sinking boat, even if it occurs from a slow-moving vessel. At six knots a boat covers 200 yards, or 600 feet, every minute. If it takes a boat five minutes to stop and turn around, then a victim will be 1,000 yardshalf a mile or moreaway from his or her rescuers.Therefore, to find and rescue a group or individual takes a combination of factors:· Accurate reporting of the initial position and time of an incident· Continuous contact and updates on position· Easily seen or detected locating signals.

Locating signals can be categorized as electronic, visual, or aural, and best odds of being rescued include using a combination of all three. Traditional methods of rescue have relied on the receipt of an initial Mayday message and then use of flares for final locating when rescue arrives. Success is weighted on an accurate initial distress position being heard by a responsive rescue agency. Once a distress message is received, then attracting attention of potential rescuers rests with knowing the capabilities and limitations of signaling equipment and their proper use. Electronic, visual and sound devices are of three types:Autonomous: These work when unattended and for long periods. Examples are EPIRBS, strobe lights, radar reflectors, life rafts, survival suits, inflatable gear.

Manual: Often long lived, these require human input. Examples are signal mirrors, flashlights, whistles, foghorns, balloons, kites, night-vision scopes, and flags.

Short duration: For use when rescue units are nearby. Examples are flares, smoke, sea dyes. Signal mirrors are probably the most reliable and simple of signaling devices. Under normal sunlit conditions, mirror flashes can be seen for 10 miles, with reports of flashes seen at 50 miles and an actual rescue attributed to a flash seen at 105 miles!

Signal mirrors come in various sizes and are constructed from glass as well as stainless steel and plastic. Glass is a preferred choice since it has the best reflectivity and does not dull or scratch. Two features are needed to make a signal mirror useful: an aiming hole so reflected light can be aimed and a lanyard attachment so a mirror cannot be lost overboard. Survival guides recommend a mirror for each person, which is prudent should individuals become separated.

This precaution also allows survivors in a raft to send signals in multiple directions simultaneously. Quality glass mirrors have been reported to reflect bright moonlight, making them useful day and night.

Next on the list of simple and reliable signaling devices are chemical lights, known also as "Cyalume" or "Snapstick." These personal marker lights have a duration of five minutes (high intensity) to 12 hours, and come in orange and green colors. Tests show these lights are visible up to one mile and are seen most easily when swung by their attached lanyards.

Strobe lights are a step up from chemical lights in brightness, often capable of being seen at five miles, but they require batteries and have switches that must be checked and prevented from being accidentally turned on. Strobes are not always as visible from overhead as they are horizontally due to bulb orientation, so they should not be depended on for airborne rescue. Swinging a strobe on a lanyard is often needed to attract the attention of a helicopter or plane crew.

Whistles and horns are important and often underrated signaling devices. Their sound carries much farther than a human voiceoften up to two milesand it is less tiring to blow a whistle than to shout over wind and seas. Three short blasts on a whistle (the international code for distress) is more likely to be heard by potential rescuers than a voice.

Sea-dye marker creates a bright green stain on the water when released, but it is short lived (less than an hour), caustic, and not visible at night. As an alternative to sea-dye marker, SEE/RESCUE Corp. has developed a 40-foot-long, bright-orange plastic ribbon that floats. This ribbon has been tested and approved by the U.S. Navy as a substitute for sea-dye marker and is being placed in both aviation and marine life rafts. Stiffeners keep the ribbon open and prevent it from becoming twisted, making it useful both in the water and on a boat's deck.

Fly a kite

Flares, kites, and balloons are all forms of aerial distress signals, and a product called Sky-Alert is a recent addition to this category. Sky-alert is a bright red kite-parafoil that flies in five knots or more of wind. According to its manufacturerDavis Instrumentsit develops sufficient force in eight knots of wind to lift and hold aloft an emergency radar reflector or strobe light. Sky-Alert has been certified to meet US Coast Guard requirements for distress signals, as described in Title 46 of U.S. Code part 160 (46USC160). Though not a replacement for flares, Sky-Alert does have unlimited "hang time" with a minimum five knot breeze, and is another good method of drawing attention.

Shooting a firearm will also attract attention, and there are several manufacturers of survival and signaling units. Springfield Armory (http://www.springfield-armory.com), for example, offers a survival rifle called the M6 that is constructed from stainless steel, weighs four lbs, and comes in a floating, lockable case. It is modeled after a U.S. Air Force survival rifle and fires several sizes of shells and flares. It is 32 inches in length when assembled. The M6 costs less than $200. Such a rifle is, possibly, also useful for harvesting sea gulls should you be in for a prolonged life raft stay.

Flares, the signaling standby, come in four different types:· Parachute rocket· Multi-star rocket· Hand-held· Buoyant or hand-held orange smoke

Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) flares are the best for they have the longest "burn" and "hang" times and are by far the brightest. However, flares and smoke signals burn for just one to three minutes maximum and so are truly only effective in pinpointing a position once a rescuer has, essentially, located a distressed party.

Life rafts, inflatable dinghies, and survival suits may not be thought of as signaling devices, but their size, orange color, and attached lights all contribute to being spotted.

Rescue at last

What happened to the four passengers in the downed airplane? As night wore on, one of the four decided to swim toward land using stars to determine direction. After swimming all night he heard surf and landed on a Mexican beach, seven hours after starting his swim. By midday he made contact with Mexican police, who re-initiated a search. Within several hours the three other men, all suffering from dehydration but alive, were rescued by a Mexican coast guard vessel.

Lessons were learned from their ordeal, and though they are not new they are well worth emphasizing:· Mechanical failure can happen to anyone at anytime.· Be prepareda basic signal kit costs just around $50.· Have a truly waterproof flashlight(s).· Have a handheld radio, waterproof preferred.· Have a 406 EPIRB.· Have a raft with an inflatable floor and orange canopy. Hypothermia often kills before drowning, and orange is highly visible.· Always have a method to make or obtain water.· Effects of adverse weather, especially convective activity such as thunderstorms and squalls, should never be underestimated.

When an emergency arises, drawing attention and being noticed is crucial to being rescued, and color, shape and motion are all necessary ingredients to accomplish this end.

Contrasting with background features is important, confirming the rationale for Coast Guard helicopters and rescue boats being painted international orange. Some voyaging yachts have their mast tops painted this color, as do the bridges of commercial ships and the bows of barges.

Aesthetics should not override safety concerns. The new Disney Cruise ship Magic received an exemption from SOLAS to paint Magic lifeboats yellow (SOLAS convention normally requires orange lifeboats) to match Mickey Mouse's color scheme.

Hopefully, Magic's lifeboats will never be used, but international orange is the most easily located and recognized color in the open ocean and thus most suitable for lifeboats.

Being seen is key to being rescued. Standing out from a background and being noisy are essential elements for survival, detection, and rescue.

Editor's note: detailed information on signaling, survival and emergency equipment is found on the WWW at:http://www.equipped.com/signal.htm