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Discussion: Whistles

in: Orienteering; Gear & Toys

May 20, 2023 10:44 PM # 
Questions of the day for US clubs: do we require people to carry a whistle because it's what we've always done, or is it actually useful? How often has a whistle truly saved the day? How do all those Europeans manage without whistles?

These are the deep, important questions I want answers to before trying to figure out how to replenish our stash.
May 21, 2023 1:15 AM # 
In 25+ years of orienteering I never had occasion to blow my whistle, nor had I ever heard a whistle being blown in the woods in an O meet. Until UNO's recent meet. A junior had become seriously disoriented. When I encountered him blowing his whistle and moving on his own power, I talked to him and found him physically fine, just mentally demoralized by having spent 45 minutes out of contact. (And not having bailed out on a safety bearing.) I reoriented him and we set out in a common direction, he on his course and me on mine.

For that junior, it was useful. Without one, I suppose he would have eventually decided to bail out.
May 21, 2023 1:16 AM # 
In much of Europe, you're never that far away from civilization. But, at least in Switzerland, whistles are usually required for the alpine events (and usually there is a very diligent event worker checking to make sure you've got one before you're allowed to start).
May 21, 2023 2:56 AM # 
I've never seen them used but I do carry one sometimes out of an (admittedly irrational) fear of pulling a Martin Johansson and due to the smaller events we have here, there may not be others within shouting distance.
May 21, 2023 3:26 AM # 
The one time I needed to use one, my lips were too torn to achieve the seal necessary to produce a sound. So I had to make my own way to the finish. Of course, smashing one's face on a boulder is probably not the normal reason a whistle might be needed.

One thought, though - the cheapo plastic whistles that most clubs offer and most US orienteers carry, really are not very loud. Especially in windy comditions, the sound has very limited carry. If you really want to be heard, its probably better to spend just a little more on a good metal referee type whistle, and carry the few more grams of weight and bulk.
May 21, 2023 3:42 AM # 
The orienteering whistles are easier to blow than referee whistles, and also have a lower pitch, which I think actually carries further.
May 21, 2023 6:53 AM # 
When I screamed after snapping my patellar tendon the sound carried for several hundred metres and at least 20 people came running to the spot. One showed me on the map where she heard it - about 400m distant.
May 21, 2023 8:59 AM # 
I think its like a seat-belt, you dont need it until you need it. But what's that about a stash? I would expect every orienteer to own one - for the princely sum of $2. Round here, they come from marine supplies, same as they supply on life jackets.
May 21, 2023 12:10 PM # 
Fewer orienteers in woods in NA than Europe.
Fewer volunteers in woods in NA than Europe.
more wilderness in many NA forests than Europe

A Martin Johansson like situation is what happened in Canada leading up to the adoption of the whistle rule in Canada. Fortunately the situation happened during warmup and a concerned family member went looking for the competitor when they didn’t show up at the start line on time.

having a simple low cost aid for a competitor to get the attention of another competitor, or volunteer or another individual using the forest when they need help is an excellent policy. The latter is what happened to my wife when she was injured in a race and couldn’t move her foot. She tried crawling for a long time but got tired. She used her whistle that got the attention of an equestrian rider. Rider and horse raced to the finish area (pre cell phones) and notified officials and first aid and vehicle were quickly on the way. Injury wasn’t life threatening but whistle still “saved the day”.

Like Gruver said “you don’t need until you need it”. Great policy.
May 21, 2023 12:18 PM # 
One of the best examples of sportspersonship in NorAm orienteering is when Canadian superstar Magali Robert abandoned her Nor Am Champs race, whilst easily on pace to win, to search and find a person using a whistle for assistance. with others’ assistance they got the person out of the woods safely and to hospital. Magali would go on to win future NorAm Champs, race for Canada and become a doctor. Classy race organizers recognized Magali at the awards for her sportspersonship.
May 21, 2023 1:06 PM # 
At the finish line of our most recent event, three people reported hearing a woman yelling “Help!” and she later told us she was also blowing her whistle. Unfortunately, the weather was bad and no one was able to make contact with her on the course. The woman was unhurt but went off the map; she eventually got to a road and phoned a family member for a ride.
May 21, 2023 1:36 PM # 
After decades of O without using or hearing anyone else (other than kids messing around) use a safety whistle, a couple years ago I heard 3 toots of a whistle coming from the forest at Willard Brook, same map where this year's Billygoat took place. I headed toward the source and had to call out a couple times for the person to sound the whistle again before locating him. Turned out to be someone who had fallen in the mountain laurel and suffered lacerations on his arm and hand. He looked pretty bloody but had applied direct pressure and managed to stop the bleeding himself. His bigger problem was that after all that he'd lost track of his location and needed someone to help him relocate so he could head back to the finish.
May 21, 2023 2:38 PM # 
I've never used my whistle or needed to aid someone who was using their whistle. However, they are small and cheap and not burdensome to carry and they have the potential to be very helpful. I see no reason to not have one along just in case.

As an organizer/volunteer, I've had more cases where lost competitors reached out using a cell phone. But that's not something I would want to depend on. Many orienteering areas have no service or spotty service, batteries can die, or a bad fall can easily break/damage a phone. Not everyone wants to carry their expensive phone and I do still know some people who don't have one. In one case the person was off the map but near a trail sign and I was able to direct her back with that information. In the other case the person got back on track and continued on only to get turned around before the last control. Then her battery was dead. That one involved a search, querying of boxes, and preparing to call the rangers in as darkness started to fall.... when she finally returned back via car with some random person who had offered a ride.
May 21, 2023 3:07 PM # 
In Florida we are using the Livelox live tracking feature and it is proving very effective in locating participants whose tracks are not moving and those who are going way off course/ off the map. But we have resisted codifying it into the rules that a participant must use Livelox. One of our venues - a National Guard camp - insists that our participants wear their tracking devices and then in true Catch 22 style cannot provide enough devices for our participants.
The rule on whistles worries me and I think is worth a legal discussion. I have heard that if you enact a rule and then do not enforce it you are taking on some measure of liability and allowing an insurance company off the hook. Is that a valid opinion?
May 21, 2023 9:52 PM # 
Not in terms of a club policy, but rather personal safety: consider something like a Storm whistle. $6-$10, crazy loud, don't try it indoors.
May 21, 2023 10:37 PM # 
@gruver, it's sort of customary for clubs in the US to have a stash of branded whistles available for sale (for $1 or $2) for those who need one. However, getting them branded generally requires purchasing 500 of them. I don't see a problem with this, they're like business cards, so it's worth the money to have people walking around with the club's url right there. But not everyone wants to maintain such a stash, nor pay for 500 whistles. I will probably buy a much smaller stash of marine safety whistles and call it good.
May 22, 2023 3:23 AM # 
For what it's worth, I think having a club whistle in my backpacking kit has reminded me that I should go orienteering on several occasions.
May 22, 2023 3:29 AM # 
When teaching in schools, for the schools where I taught weeklong programs, I had plain O-whistles and address label stickers with my logo and the 3-blasts instructions on one side, and the school name and space for the student's name on the other side. That allowed to get fewer whistles, and customize whistles, and sometimes I would add MNOC's website
May 22, 2023 11:39 AM # 
Gord I've heard that view about enforcement around here too. We don't generally want to carry out whistle checks, that would be draconian. But its no reason not to have rules. For example, we have speed limits on our roads. Compliance testing is highly random - scattered speed cameras, relatively isolated traffic police. But most people accept the need for the rules, and (more or less) follow them.
May 22, 2023 4:17 PM # 
Here's why I think orienteering clubs, American ones in particular, have to be wary of the safetry rules they put in place and insistent on the rules' enforcement if the rule is in place.
A safety rule is put in place to increase orienteer safety. If an injury occurs that is likely to cause health care costs. In most countries that is no big deal but in America somebody or somebody's insurance company is going to be facing a big bill.
So lets say orienteer X suffers a venemous snake bite. He calls out and some orienteers come to his aid, they get help, he is extracted, taken to a hospital and anti-venom is applied. Elapsed time say five hours, further hospitalization a couple of days bill to his insurance company anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000. Yes, it is his insurance company's bill because he signed a waiver.
BUT the insurance company has investigators. One of them looks around and finds out OUSA has a rule on the books that competitors are required to carry whistles. The club in question did not enforce the rule and the injured person went out without a whistle so the insurance company requires the injured orienteer to sue the club and OUSA. (In this case it doesn't even matter tthat assistance was there in a timely manner.) A lot of expensive negotiating ensues and after the lawyers have earned enough (my personal cynicism) OUSA's insurer is forced to take on some liability. Or perhaps the injured has no insurance and they engage a law firm like Morgan & Morgan. Every American knows Morgan & Morgan. They will definitely go after the deep pocket/ low hanging fruit and in this case it is OUSA.
After the settlement the OUSA insurer then has two calls it can make 1) cancel its policy with OUSA or 2) raise the rates to cover the eventuality of more snake bite / no whistle claims.
And remember snake bite is just an example. It could be an open wound, a leg injury, an eye injury, a serious fall, lost and not found in a reasonable time, etc, etc.
I urge you all to either take these rules seriously and either enforce them or get them off the books!
May 22, 2023 5:28 PM # 
I don't know how this would play out in the legal system, but even if enforcement of whistle-carrying is required, that doesn't mean that a participant in need will have one, as a whistle can be lost. Even if you are checking, orienteer X might have a hole in his pocket. How strictly would the club need to enforce the rule in this hypothetical scenario? Is it enough to state that whistles are required, or is it necessary to check at the start line, or does the start crew have to have the participant demonstrate that the whistle is in good working order and that it's attached in some secure manner? (I'll note that at the Wicked Hard Night-O at Pawtuckaway, we require a backup light, and that has to be demonstrated at the start, after an incident where a competitor said he had a spare but he didn't really, and his main light broke in the pitch black and pouring rain.)

Somebody who knows more about legal liability could speak better to this that I can, but I'm skeptical that Gord's scenario is realistic. It may be a layperson's extrapolation of something else that is a concern. As an example: water stops.

I once (before COVID) expressed an opinion that maybe we shouldn't provide water stops on courses (in some countries, they don't). I was told by the president of USOF that this was a reckless idea, that water stops are an important safety issue, and we would be at great risk if someone overheated and we hadn't provided water. But my response was that providing water was what actually puts us at risk. If we tell people there's no water out there, then it's their responsibility to bring their own. But if we tell them that there will be water, what happens when there is none? Whether because the amount needed was underestimated, or because some jerk kicked over all the jugs? (I've seen water stops go dry more than once.) I'd worry about that a lot more than whether we're doing whistle checks.
May 22, 2023 8:22 PM # 
I believe when someone had a heart attack on a course at a national event, the first person to find the person used his whistle to get additional aid.

I have never used a whistle but have responded to ones at local events (only to have it be kids playing). I still think it is a good recommended practice (even if not enforced).
May 22, 2023 9:15 PM # 
> How do all those Europeans manage without whistles?

For what it's worth, it's pretty standard to be required to carry a whistle for races on the more remote/upland parts of England. But I suspect that English legal culture means that health and safety is more of a consideration for organisers here than it is in some parts of Europe. Whether clubs actually police/enforce whistle-carrying requirements is pretty variable.

On the other hand, I'm not sure I've ever heard of anyone carrying a phone on an orienteering course, although I guess some real beginners or family groups might do it.

EDIT: but maybe I'm out of touch and MapRun/UsynligO etc normalised this while I wasn't paying attention?
May 22, 2023 9:20 PM # 
--Wilderness orienteering is naturally a dangerous sport.
--The culture (parasites-lawyers, insurers, medical industry sucking dry anything productive) that Gordhun is describing is stifling not just orienteering, but society as a whole. That is why America goes down.
--Urban events can be hugely more dangerous than forest ones.
--Providing water in individual sealed bottles at water stops is a sensible policy.
Courses could be designed the way it is an attended stop near start /finish.
--In the past I strongly opposed having jugs since some assholes were caught on camera drinking from the jug instead of using cups. Then covid paranoia resulted in the current situation when water is not offered at all, which is not right IMO
--In some countries I am aware medical coverage that covers events like orienteering or bungee jumping is verified as a part of processing when you enter the race (or when you pay federation membership fee, and you must be a member)
May 23, 2023 10:32 AM # 
The orange plastic whistles that are common place are called "Perry whistles". I once had cause to use one in a mountaineering incident. It was on a wide open moor with a wind blowing. I could see the people I was trying to contact a few hundred meters away but they never heard a cheep from my whistle. I replaced the Perry whistle in my mountaineering kit with a "divers storm whistle" which can hit 120 decibels.

The orienteering environment is different from mountaineering and whistles are likely to be more effective because distances will probably be shorter and there are probably more people about.

I habitually carry a Perry whistle on my car key ring and carry that on a string round my neck when running. I had cause to use the whistle recently (just something minor) and found that it had been ignored in my trouser pocket for so long that it had become completely bunged up with fluff and dirt. I had to poke it out with a stick and wash it in a stream before it worked.

The last time I read IOF rules, a few months ago, they didn't mention whistles at all; presumably we are trusted to make our own minds up. BOF rules, on the other hand, have an odd bit where it says that the event Organiser can decide to either recommend whistles or make them compulsory. If whistles are made compulsory under BOF rules then every competitor must be compelled to produce the whistle when leaving the assembly area and at the start, so that increases the number of people needed to enforce these rules.

Our club publishes this standard set of instructions for every event, although I expect that most people will just skim read it.

"Safety and Risk
A comprehensive risk assessment has been carried out by the organiser, but participants take part at their own risk and are responsible for their own safety during the event. Wearing full leg covering and carrying a safety whistle are strongly recommended. If the weather forecast for the event is poor bringing a lightweight waterproof jacket for running in is strongly recommended. If the weather forecast for the event is particularly hot and dry consider carrying your own water bottle; no drinks will be provided on the course by the event organisers. If you have personal medical concerns carry information about your medical condition and identity on your person in such a way as can be easily found by a First Aider."

About the "three blasts of the whistle" advice. I think that that must be a North American thing. In Europe the advice comes from the International Commission for Alpine Rescue which recommends a distress signal of six whistles or light flashes with a minutes gap between sets. The response is three whistles or flashes at each minute, which means "help is on the way". I wouldn't worry about that much; if you are lying hurt on the ground in a Swedish forest making any whistle noise should attract attention, even if you are blowing free form jazz.
May 23, 2023 2:01 PM # 
“On the other hand, I'm not sure I've ever heard of anyone carrying a phone on an orienteering course, although I guess some real beginners or family groups might do it.”

I always do, although I might turn it off until needed. My husband convinced me to leave it behind one time for a middle distance race with a remote start. A volunteer carrying a big bag of jackets on a mountain bike went over his handlebars and suffered a head injury right in front of me on the rocky trail between the bus drop-off and the start. It took a couple of minutes but I was able to flag down teenagers on mountain bikes on a nearby trail to lend me a phone to call an ambulance. I didn’t have my usual contact phone numbers to let other people know. I had to ask the boys to wait with us. That’s not the only time I’ve needed to call for help for someone else in the outdoors - just the only time it’s happened while orienteering.

At our recent event I mentioned above, the competitor (an experienced orienteer) carried a whistle but in the end, it was her cell phone that got her help in a remote area on a day of cold rain. It’s easy insurance to carry a phone. I know phones are probably not allowed in higher level events. For the adventure race I help direct, we wrap and seal them. For our new O group, we recommend cell phones but advise that they can’t be used for navigation except in an emergency. No one is going to win our O races if they cheat with a cell phone. These aren’t championship races - just fun local events.

Re enforcing the whistle rule, I’ve done adventure races where I’ve been asked to sign a form certifying that I have brought and will carry certain pieces of mandatory gear, rather than showing items to the organizer, then potentially leaving them behind.
May 23, 2023 7:57 PM # 
Suppose one has an "ear-splitting" whistle like I have had since I was about 14?
True, most don't but it would work for me (& those who do), ie, I could readily summon attention. I could even whistle a tune loud enough if asked.

I just had a meet in my own town forest. Not having been the key person responsible for a meet in years, I didn't know about the insurance option thru USOF until told by a club member who had just put on a meet. I had a Certificate of Insurance within a few hours.

I did not notify anyone in the town officialdom (namely the Board of Selectmen) for this small, local meet. I last did another similar meet in the same forest in 2014 without permission - times have changed though. Asking, however, might have made for a cascade of 'complications' which I did not want or need. And I did have perspective on town usage of the area.

I do believe the US is unfortunately too litigation-minded/paranoid for its own good.
May 24, 2023 5:40 AM # 
For the last 5 years, I've always carried a phone with me when orienteering. Usually in a sealed zip lock bag. I appreciate it when organizers put an emergency contact number on the map. Small peace of mind. Whistle also seems like a reasonable thing to carry.
May 24, 2023 9:14 AM # 
I think phone carriers at these sorts of events fall into two categories - those who want to feel 'safe' and those who can't live without social media/their friends for more than a few minutes at a time. I've managed to drag myself out of trouble on more than one occasion where I've suffered a mishap without a phone (as I imagine people used to do in the old days) or even if I had one and didn't use it (carried for MapRun) and in the situation where I needed a rescue, having a phone wouldn't have been much use as I was in no fit state to use it.
May 24, 2023 3:25 PM # 
Category #3: The ability to help someone else as quickly and effectively as possible - the reason I always carry one now.
May 24, 2023 4:58 PM # 
To clarify, these are Perry whistles:

but the most common whistles in orienteering in the USA look like this:

and these are much louder:
May 24, 2023 10:20 PM # 
#3 is still in the safe category.
Jun 2, 2023 10:17 PM # 
whistle news story

This discussion thread is closed.