After diving a sea-mount in the Sea of Cortez in search of hammerhead sharks, we surfaced to find our dive boat quite a distance away. No worries, mate; but just for fun we decided to try giving them a toot on our standard orange safety whistles which came with our travel BCDs. We all blew, then laughed, blew then laughed, then gave up. The wet whistles were useless and managed nothing more than a loud hiss. “Note to self: we need a bigger whistle”
Months later, at the end of a long day covering the GEAR Up Expo in Everett, Washington we came upon the Whistles for Life booth, It was lined with colorful whistles and the logos of many safety organizations that were using or have endorsed the this whistle. This inspired me to wonder, “So, isn’t a whistle just a whistle?”
I first learned that most safety whistles come in two basic configurations; pea or pea-less. The pea whistle has a small synthetic or cork pea that gives that staccato sound to the whistle (e.g. us police or referee). Others are simple a pea-less sound chamber that amplify the sound by creating turbulence inside the whistle. A pea-less whistle has no moving parts and some of those are marketed as being more reliable. However, we have talked with experts that say they have never seen a case where a pea froze and disabled the whistle.
Another important factor designing a safety whistle is distinction. The sound must be distinct from other sounds found in the area of the victim. These include natural sounds such as wind, rapids and water falls, waves and birds or artificial sounds found in an urban area. The staccato sound made by the pea whistle is favored because its sound is associated with alarm or alerts. We have heard and seen reports that another popular brand, the Fox 40 whistle was giving a Canadian SAR team fits because the call of a bird indigenous to their region sounded so close to the Fox 40 whistle that they found themselves wasting time checking out birds instead of victims. Paul Grove of Fox Whistles says that they sell many whistles with different tones that could be used in this rare case.
If you can be heard you can be rescued!
The Whistles For Life whistle (aka the Signal #1 Tri-Power Safety Whistle) is fascinating because it goes two steps further than other whistles. It is designed with a center pea chamber whistle and two outer, pea-less chambers that create separate omni-directional sounds. Additionally each of the side chambers create a different tone. This increases the odds that the sound will be distinct.
Like the WFL whistle the Fox 40 whistles combine two separate tones from their split whistle chamber. Fox’s Grove said the had also thought of the same idea as WFL but their pea-less company culture prevented them from introducing it. Fox 40 whistles made their name on pea-less whistles. The owner, a former basketball official, designed his whistle to avoid the embarrassment when an official blows out a play and a “roofed” or stuck pea makes the whistle useless.
Another whistle in competition with the WFL is the Storm Whistle. The Storm was designed by Howard Wright of Saint Louis who claims it to be the “loudest whistle on the market.” Their marketing material claims 10 db over the WFL whistle. We did not feel that that there was any significant volume difference between the two. We did notice that WFL has a higher tone than the Storm.
The Storm is certainly very large in comparison to other whistles. The company also sells a more compact version called the “Wind Storm.” But this is still large compared with the WFL whistle.
Storm also makes this somewhat mystifying and dive related claim on their website: “Its patented design allows the Storm whistle to be heard up to fifty feet underwater.” Wright, elaborated on this and claimed that this whistle is purchased by the US Navy Seals because of its underwater capability. However in our own tests while scuba diving we couldn’t hear any useful sound out of the Storm underwater. The person blowing the whistle could hear a few peeps among the bubbles but the dive buddy, only a few feet away, heard nothing. Likewise, the divers on ScubaBoard have also reported that the Stormis useful underwater. Having been originally designed for playing the pool game know as Marco Polo, the storm may be useful in a pool. But real diving situations are another story.
Michael Crowtz, Program & Technical Director of Outward Bound Canada wrote this about the WFL whistle “In a blind whistle test 4 out of 5 instructors said they felt the Tri-Power whistle was louder and indicated a truer feeling that there was an emergency which needed responding to.” He added that “Instructors specifically noted it was easier to hear as a whistle signal while descending rapids.”
The WFL whistle was designed by Bob Cameron. In 2009 Cameron was recognized by the Red Cross with the “Lifetime Achievement Hero” award. He has volunteered his services to rescue victims for more than 50 years on both military and civilian squads. His inspiration grew from his own experience of being lost in the British Columbia wilderness as a child.
The WFL whistle is made in the USA (excepting the clip). They are inexpensive at around $5 – $6 dollars. They are available from many safety organizations and most easily found at REI (http://www.rei.com/product/761180/rei-tri-power-safety-whistle-orange).
Safety whistles can be a great help in the urban jungle too. The whistles we tested are popular in college campus safety programs. Officials claim that their loud sound can deter a crime quickly. During my research for this article, I have become a passionate whistle evangelist and have been urging many other to make sure they keep a good whistle close at hand both in the city or the wilderness.
We give the WFL whistle 5 out of 5 stars for its compactness, effectiveness, reliability, low price and value.
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