How many pyrotechnic distress signals

International distress signals (land, water, air)

An overview of known national and international emergency signals that can save your life in an emergency. Mountain rescue, rescue from inaccessible areas, rescue from distress at sea, after accidents and disasters.

Correct use of beacons, smoke signals, emergency signals, torches, projectiles, flares on land, at sea and in the air.

Table of Contents:

  1. Basic behavior in an emergency situation
  2. When can emergency signals be used?
  3. Distress signals
  4. SOS Morse signals
  5. Ground-to-air signs
  6. Fire signals
  7. Smoke signals
  8. Flight signals
  9. Signal colors on containers with emergency food
  10. Alternative signals
  11. Conclusion and PDF

Basic behavior

If emergency signals are sent in an emergency situation, then it means for the rescue services that receive these signals to search at the place where they were sent. That is why it is extremely important to stay at the location after the broadcast.

If this is not possible due to the given circumstances, clear directions must be left for searching rescue teams. The ground-to-air signs described in the article below can be used for this purpose (↑ search in this direction).

When can emergency signals be used?

Pyrotechnic distress signals such as signal rockets, hand flares and smoke signals are emergency signals that are triggered with the aid of explosive substances.

Signal pistols with caliber 4 (26.5 mm) and other signal weapons approved by the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) can be used for this purpose.

In Germany, the use and purpose of distress signals according to Section 1, Paragraph 3.1. of the Explosives Ordinance (SprengV) (see: First Ordinance on the Explosives Act PDF). Use is therefore subject to clear legal framework conditions.

All signals for the purpose of requesting help such as fire signals, smoke signals, Morse code, ground-to-air signals or other alternative methods of signaling emergencies may only be used in emergencies.

Lighting flares for fun or sending SOS calls for help can have serious consequences for you and others.

However, if you are actually in a life-threatening situation, knowing the correct use of specific distress signals may be decisive in saving your life.

Distress signals

A distinction is made between the following distress signals:

  • Signal missiles
  • Hand torches
  • Smoke signals
  • Parachute missiles

In order to be allowed to drive a watercraft with a motor or sails, in most countries of the western world an examination is necessary. Canada is an exception. Here water sports are just as regulated as cycling. Anyone who feels able to do so can also steer a boat.

If you live in Europe and want to get a sea license, find out about specific regulations in your country of residence. Requirements for obtaining the authority to drive watercraft are very different in the various European countries. They also change frequently.

Since you are not allowed to go out to sea in Germany without a sailing license, it is enough to know that there are torches, smoke signals, parachute signals and signal rockets as emergency signals. In an emergency, as a passenger, you will also be able to shoot down a signal rocket.

You can find out more about use and authorizations when completing a course to obtain a boat license.

SOS Morse code for air, water and land

International Morse Code: · · · - - · · · ·

The international Morse Code is made up of three short, three long and three short signals. In an emergency, it should be sent three times in a row.

It comes from the Morse Code group SOS and has been valid worldwide since 1906.

Learn more:SOS Morse signals

Ground-to-air signs

The following ground-to-air signs (Ground-air visual signal codes) are the International Standards And Recommended Practices For Search and Rescue the International Civil Aviation Organization taken.

With regard to the use, a distinction is made between the visual signals that survivors (Survivors) and the visual signals provided by the rescue team (Rescue units) can be used to communicate with each other.

In emergencies, visual signals are understandable worldwide as emergency signals by trained rescue teams.

Note on correct use:

The following signals can be painted on fabric sheets or on the floor. They have to be big enough so that they can also be seen from the air from airplanes or helicopters (for air rescue).

Alternatively, it is possible to create the signals from trunks, branches and other materials. At night, the signals can be ignited for better visibility.

Surface-to-air signs for use by survivors

(Ground-air visual signal codes for use for survivors)

Surface-to-air signals for the use of rescue teams

(Ground-air visual signal codes for use for rescue units)

Fire distress signals

Fire is a particularly effective way of drawing attention to yourself in an emergency. Flames are widely visible at night and also by day. The smoke can be seen optically and can even be smelled over mountains.

So that the fire from the air does not look like any fireplace, it can be set up as an internationally understandable emergency signal. Instead of making just one fireplace, make fires in multiple places.

Three fireplaces that burn at a distance of about 30 meters are internationally recognized as an emergency signal. The fireplaces can be arranged in a line or in a triangle.

Smoke signals

Smoke signals work well in off-road areas where mountains, rocks, valleys, and gorges have limited visibility of flames.

In order to light a fire with a lot of smoke, it is advisable to burn brushwood, branches and twigs with leaves, grass and all materials that contain moisture.

So that the fire does not go out in spite of moisture, a really blazing fire should first be started. If there is a fire, another fireplace is created from it for safety and better visibility.

If there is only a limited amount of fuel available, then the right moment is awaited. This can be, for example, exactly when aircraft noise is audible.

Flight signals

Flight signals are used by pilots and ground troops to communicate with one another. Knowing about these signals can also be useful as a survivor in an emergency.

Signal understood:

  • Aircraft communication during the day: Panning with the wings
  • Aircraft communication at night: switching the position lights on and off
  • Day and night helicopters: Alternating change of bank angle at the same flight location (panning), switching on and off the position lights

Signal not understood:

The plane or helicopter continues to circle over the location of the signal for a more revealing signal.

Signal colors on containers with emergency food

If not everyone in a disaster area can be rescued in a timely manner, emergency supplies of food, clothing, blankets and medical supplies come first. Barrels with appropriate supply packages are then dropped over the area.

In order to be able to assess the contents of the barrels at first glance, they are marked in color.

Alternative signals

If there is an emergency situation and no possibility of sending emergency signals such as SOS, Morse code, fire signals or smoke signals, then use what you have: your body.


One of the most reflexive ways to signal is shouting or shouting. Anyone who is suddenly in mortal danger often screams automatically.

Signals with arms and legs:

If help is in the foreseeable distance, the arms are stretched wide apart and moved up and down. In order to look even more conspicuous, the clothing should be as bright as possible.

Pieces of fabric or a colored T-shirt can also be used to make the waving even more visible. Also, use your legs and jump in the air while waving your arms.

Conclusion and PDF

In the mountains and everywhere on land, at sea and in the air, emergency signals can be used to draw attention to an emergency situation. Emergency signals apply internationally. They may only be used in an actual emergency.

You should know the most important international distress signals. These include the Morse code emergency call, fire signals or smoke signals. The knowledge of the correct use of other signals such as surface-to-air signals or distress signals is also an advantage for a survivor.

Lesser known emergency rescue signals can be forgotten again. So that you always have them to hand, print them out and pack them with your survival equipment.

Download: signal list as a PDF note to take away