How to call for help in an emergency with limited phone signal

Personal locator beacon GME
Image: GME.

If you’re in an emergency situation without a reliable phone signal, what can you do to call for help? Fortunately, you have multiple options, although most of them require some forward thinking. A personal locator beacon is one of several tools at your disposal should you be exploring remote areas.

Chances are, within the next 12 months, every mobile phone could become an emergency communication device no matter where you are in Australia. New technology in development allows text communication between a satellite and a smartphone. In the meantime, these are some options for calling for help when you have no mobile coverage.

What are your options for emergency communication?

An emergency communication system is a device that primarily supports one-way and two-way communication of emergency information between individuals and groups of individuals.

In an emergency in Australia, we instantly think of dialling 000 and asking for help. However, Australia is a pretty big place, 7,688,287 square kilometres, to be precise. Even Telstra, covering more than 99% of the population, only reaches approximately 2,700,000 square kilometres.

Short Range

UHF Radio: A land-based UHF radio with a 5-watt power rating in perfect conditions will provide a range of up to 18km. Channels 5 and 35 are for emergency calls, but most people will be tuned to Channel 40, giving you the best hope of reaching help. Popular radios are available from Uniden and GME.

uhf radio

VHF Radio: A marine radio standard used worldwide, with channel 16 used for emergencies and as the most used channel. The range of a Marine VHF radio is up to 37km. Popular radios are available from GME and Uniden.

Landline: A landline may be available at a remote outback station, but you still need to be able to get to it to call for help, thus classifying it as short-range.

Mobile Phone: Almost all of us carry a smartphone, which unfortunately loses most of its smarts when you lose mobile coverage. Nevertheless, when in range, a triple zero call is your best method of calling for help. It does not matter who your phone plan provider is when it comes to 000 calls; it will be connected to 000 regardless.


Satellite phone: A satellite phone will cost more than $2,000 outright, require a monthly service plan of about $60, and cost $1 a minute to use. They are highly portable and will work anywhere in the world if you have a clear view of the sky. They do have a delay when talking, but you can phone anyone and use them to send text messages and transmit data at really slow speeds.

satellite phone

Emergency Positioning Indicating Radio (EPIRB): Introduced in the 1970s, an EPIRB is a ship safety device. Once activated, it sends a distress signal via satellite and radio frequency to your location. An EPIRB can be activated manually, but many models are automatic once exposed to seawater if the vessel sinks. An EPIRB floats and is designed so the antenna will face up to the sky. Although designed for water, they can be used on land.

If you plan to take a boat (including windsurfer or paddle craft more than two nautical miles from shore, you must carry an EPIRB (or PLB). Sales of EPIRBs are controlled by Australian standard 4280.1, and they are required to be registered and have a battery within use by date. Batteries are designed to last for a minimum of 48 hours. Prices start at around $330, and no subscription is required.


Personal Locator Beacon (PLB): Unlike an EPIRB, which is primarily designed for a vessel, a personal locator beacon is for individual use. It is an extremely compact device designed to be worn or carried. A personal locator beacon must also be registered with your contact details, which provides authorities with your details if you activate the beacon.

Sales of PLBs are controlled by Australian standard 4280.2, and they must have self-testing and a battery within a use-by date. Batteries are designed to last for a minimum of 24 hours. Both EPIRB and PLB must be disposed of correctly by removing the battery to ensure a false trigger does not occur. Prices start at around $300, and no subscription is required.


Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT): An ELT is compulsory in all aircraft. Aircraft sold in Australia will have an ELT as part of their avionics package.

Satellite Communicator: This technology can be built into a small wearable device, vehicle, or boat navigation device. Via a satellite, it allows 2-way text, an SOS to be sent, weather updates and allows you to send real-time tracking to interested parties. Prices start in the $200 to $300 bracket, and a monthly subscription starts from $20 per month.

Satellite Communicator

StarLink: Access the internet anywhere in Australia where you can see the sky. This innovation from SpaceX means those in remote areas can now achieve internet speeds faster than most people are subscribed to in the cities. Various plans and hardware configurations allow different services depending on whether you have a fixed location, are roaming Australia, or want connectivity on the move.

A package suitable for the RVer has a hardware cost of $599 and a monthly plan of $174 for unlimited internet. You could use Wi-Fi calling from your mobile device via StarLink to call for help or contact via other internet calling solutions such as Skype, Zoom, etc. The equipment and power requirements mean this solution is vehicle-based.


What happens when you call for help?

What happens when you call depends on the method of emergency communication.

If you dial 000, your call is answered by Telstra and transferred to the relevant service, such as Police, Fire, or Ambulance. These emergency services will then coordinate with state-based emergency services, including rescue helicopters, flying doctors, marine search and rescue, etc.

If you trigger an EPIRB or PLB, the signal is routed from the satellite to the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JCRR) in Canberra. The JCRR will then contact the relevant emergency services and your previously registered emergency contacts.

With most modern devices now including GPS, your position will be transmitted automatically as part of the 000 call or rescue beacon. Response times will vary depending on your location and situation, if it is known.

Emergency communication over the years

Emergency communication devices have been around for more than 50 years, but a more recent innovation is including GPS in various solutions. The GPS position allows emergency services to pinpoint your location and deploy help to your exact location. Previously, the technology pointed you somewhere within a 5km radius (EPIRB without GPS).

The innovation of Satellite receivers means that subscribers can send their position in a non-emergency situation; they can also communicate by text and receive weather updates all from a device smaller than the palm of your hand.

Many travellers have invested in StarLink, which enables internet access anywhere in Australia. Although not highly portable and requiring 240 volts, it does enable Wi-Fi calling from a mobile phone, which means you can make a phone call from anywhere.

By the end of 2024, this same Starlink technology will enable most mobile phones to send a text message via satellite in an emergency. Apple launched this service in 2023 on its iPhone 14 and 15 using Globalstar satellites.

We expect to be able to make and receive calls using your smartphone and satellites in 2025. Pricing and conditions are not known yet.

Note that products like personal locator beacons are specifically designed to be available and ready to use in an emergency, with features like long-life batteries, homing technologies, floating, and waterproofing.

Why choose a personal locator beacon?

Assuming you have mobile coverage from any network. For convenience, a mobile phone is your best option for emergency communication. Mobiles make up 78% of emergency calls and transmit your position within 25 seconds of a connection made to 000.

Even if you have mobile coverage, your phone may not float, may not be waterproof, may have a flat battery, or be damaged.

PLB personal locator beacon

One of the best emergency communication devices is a personal locator beacon for peace of mind when exploring our great continent or beyond. A PBL is a robust, dedicated device ready to be used when required. Just last year, two bushwalkers were safely found in remote Tasmania after activating a PLB.

One example device is the Australian-made GME MT610G PLB, which we’re currently testing. It sells for $369 and has no monthly fees required. Once the review is ready, we’ll be able to let you know if has our recommendation.