There’s been an accident and you need the help of the emergency services: Who do you call? What do you ask for? What information will you give? Based on a recent incident in the UK, here’s some learning (that I hope you’ll never have to put into practice)!

This is the very bare bones of calling for help and is not a substitute for completing a relevant first aid course, a safety and rescue course or undertaking leadership training and assessment. Every emergency is unique, but these simple steps should help you to get the help you need as efficiently as possible.

I’m a kayaker, get me out of here!! – Photo V. Bowman
I’m a kayaker, get me out of here!! – Photo V. Bowman


Assess the situation, control the situation, remove dangers, remove yourself from dangers and gather information. Calling 999 should be a last resort for life-threatening situations or when you really are stuck between a rock and a hard place. If you’ve got to make a 999 call, then make sure you have information ready to pass onto the emergency services. A “Rite in the Rain” notepad with a humble IKEA pencil came in handy here, along with a laminated emergency prompt / casualty assessment sheet stowed in a first aid kit. The “LION” information recorded included:

  • Location: A brief location description, a latitude/longitude from Google Maps or GPS, a What3Words code, a 6-figure grid reference from a map or OS app.
  • Incident and injuries: Explain who you are, what has happened and extent of injuries.
  • Other: Information on people in group, number of people, equipment used etc.
  • Numbers: Give at least one other alternative contact number of a group member in case you run out of battery or your phone gets wet/cold.
A screenshot of the What3Words app, one of 3 location methods used.
A screenshot of the What3Words app, one of 3 location methods used.

999, “What service do you require?”

With your information ready, decide which service you require. If the casualty is at a road-accessible location, then an ambulance may be enough. However, if you are in a remote or inaccessible location then you may need Mountain Rescue. To access this service, you need to request ‘Police’ first even if someone is injured. Explain what has happened and the call handler should guide you through relevant information and questions. The Police will then co-ordinate an appropriate emergency response which may include volunteer rescue teams, Coastguard, Fire and Rescue or a Hazardous Area Response Team (HART).

No signal! If your phone has no bars, you could move around or gain height to find signal. If someone must leave the group, plan to rendezvous, make sure you share phone numbers and write down information for them to pass on. A map is essential to identify where might be best to seek help or higher ground: OS Maps are useful to plan a rendezvous as are apps like Viewranger. You can also try texting 999 if your phone is registered. To register, send the word “Register” by text message to 999 then follow further instructions. If all else fails, use your whistle: Six blasts, repeated every minute. 

The reply, if heard, is three whistle blows. This can also be used to attract the attention of an approaching emergency services, especially if you are out of sight in a gorge or river bank.


Whilst monitoring the casualty, don’t forget to monitor the wellbeing of the whole group (including yourself). It could be hours before help arrives! During this time, you also need to closely watch your phones for a call back from Police, HART or MRT. Mountain Rescue often send a Phonefind/SARLOC text to pinpoint your exact location. Check the GPS on your phone is switched on and reply to the text as soon as possible: This gives the rescue teams an exact pinpoint of your phone’s location and will speed up the process of the rescuers finding you.

Hand it over!

When the emergency services reach you, there will be a handover. To do this, having some information ready using a casualty monitoring card is helpful (a good first aid provider should show you some examples of these). The casualty’s name and age are a good start and for other information, you could use the acronym “SAMPLE”:

  • S: Signs and Symptoms 
  • A: Allergies 
  • M: Medications 
  • P: Past medical history 
  • L: Last food/drink intake 
  • E: Events – what happened, what was the mechanism of injury, when did it happen?

The MRT or paramedics will gather this information from you, from the casualty and from the scene to decide on the best way to treat the injuries and plan an evacuation. It’s reassuring to see those red MRT jackets, the green HART helmets and hear the hum of Rescue 936 but don’t leave just yet… you might need to muck-in with the final evacuation!

Another S-92 Coastguard Helicopter on a brighter day – Photo K. Macmillan
Another S-92 Coastguard Helicopter on a brighter day – Photo K. Macmillan

Thankyou to the incredible team at Teesdale and Weardale Search and Mountain Rescue (TWSMRT) for debriefing and providing information on Phonefind/SARLOC for dissemination to the paddling community. Head to their website or Facebook page to find out more about their volunteer organisation and please donate a few pennies to the team if you can.

Words & Pictures: K. Macmillan