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In countless episodes, a Starfleet ship receives a distress call from a vessel or outpost of an unknown species. By the time of TNG, the Universal Translator can instantly lock onto a language from the first word of a hail. But in several episodes of ENT, it's shown that the UT requires at least several seconds of conversation to begin picking up a language. Even in ENT, however, a distress call is always immediately recognized as a distress call.

What characteristics of a transmission would make it universally recognizable as a distress call? I'm interested in both in-universe and out-of-universe answers.

  • The UT can instantly lock on to most languages, but not all. The DS9 (which takes place during the same time as TNG) episode Sanctuary (imdb.com/title/tt0708596/?ref_=ttep_ep10) and the TNG episode Darmok (imdb.com/title/tt0708696/?ref_=ttep_ep2) come to mind. In the former the syntax and vocabulary are simply too different, and it takes quite some time for the UT to lock on. In the latter, they encounter a race who speaks in metaphors, and while the words can be translated, the meaning they carry cannot. – user36119 Dec 17 '14 at 8:03
  • Distress calls are reliably identified by a powerful communications sub-routine known as the Heuristic Assistance Linguistic Protocol System, or H.A.L.P.S. – Paul D. Waite Dec 17 '14 at 10:15
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    @PaulD.Waite - I thought they were part of the protocol known as the Optimum Hailing & Surveillance High-Intensity Technology – Valorum Dec 17 '14 at 12:48
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UFP Distress Calls

On several occasions we see that the UFP maintain dedicated subspace and radio frequencies for distress signals. These are allied with standard codes ("one alpha zero" is mentioned in TNG: Relics) that are used to instantly identify the signal as a distress beacon. They also appear to have priority levels, with priority one being...

"...More than an emergency, it signals near or total disaster." The Trouble with Tribbles.

Contacted Aliens :

The Enterprise receives distress calls from previously contacted alien species on a pretty regular basis. I think it likely that one of the first things you would do when establishing diplomatic relations is to communicate common frequencies and forms of messaging including standard warning and distress signals as well as agreeing on codes of conduct (rendering assistance when asked, etc). We see the Enterprise responding to signals from the Klingons and Romulans that are instantly identified as distress calls.

Uncontacted species :

When dealing with uncontacted species, it's likely to be more that distress calls have certain common features. These would presumably include the strength of the signal, the lack of encryption, that the carrier frequencies used are those that allow the fastest and widest communications and the fact that the messages are both pre-recorded and repeating.

A good example would be in TNG : I, Borg. When entering the Argolis cluster, the Enterprise-D detects a signal emanating from one of the planets. Based on the description, Riker's first instinct is that it's a distress call:

DATA: Captain, I am detecting a transmission emanating from within the system.

RIKER: What sort of signal?

DATA: It is self-repeating, of unknown pattern.

PICARD: Where is it coming from?...

RIKER: It could be a distress call. Helm, take us into transport range.

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    I don't think lack of encryption means anything when uncontacted species are concerned - after all unknown language and communication protocol is an encryption method, and a rather good one at that. Repeating part however does sound like a good indicator indeed – Deltharis Dec 17 '14 at 4:50
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    @Deltharis Language and protocol are obfuscations, not encryption, and are unintentional. They have universal patterns which the UT can use to discern the content. Encryption has no pattern, it seems like random noise, works even if you know the encryption system, and (relevant to this answer) it shows intent to hide the content from eavesdroppers. – Schwern Dec 17 '14 at 4:59
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    @Schwern At the moment of getting the message the distinction is not exactly clear - after all if UT could find universal patterns and discern the content it would translate immediately, which it does not apparently do. Below certain treshhold of information to analyse obfuscation and encryption are the same. – Deltharis Dec 17 '14 at 5:14
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    Complete aside: the Treasure Hunter hat fits amazingly well on you. – Kyle Kanos Dec 17 '14 at 15:42
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    A recorded, repeating message MIGHT be a distress call. But it could be lots of other things, too. Like a warning message, ranging from "This planet is under medical quarantine" to "We hate strangers and will kill you if you come any closer." Or some kind of traffic control message, like the airport, "The white zone is for loading and unloading. No parking is allowed in the white zone", maybe in the future they'll have "Please enter a standard parking orbit at 10,000 km." It could be a call to prayer. It could be advertising. There are many possibilities. – Jay Dec 18 '14 at 21:35
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There wouldn't be a way to instantly know a foreign-species distress call. But a simple, repeating signal on a wide range of frequencies would be good indication of a possible distress call. I imagine Star Fleet protocol would be to investigate any possible distress call; rescuing someone is (usually) a good way to start a dialogue with a new civilazation.

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Just like in the real world, The Federation likely has dedicated channels used for emergency communications and signals on those channels receive priorities, even if the language cannot immediately be understood. Species who have treaties with the Federation are likely to have the most optimal signaling methods to communicate when they are under duress.

A distress signal is an internationally recognized means for obtaining help. Distress signals take the form of or are commonly made by using radio signals, displaying a visually detected item or illumination, or making an audible sound, from a distance.

A distress signal indicates that a person or group of people, ship, aircraft, or other vehicle is threatened by grave and imminent danger and requests immediate assistance. Use of distress signals in other circumstances may be against local or international law.

In order for distress signalling to be the most effective, two parameters must be communicated:

  • Alert or notification of a distress in progress
  • Position or location (or localization or pinpointing) of the party in distress.

For a distress signal to work in the Alpha Quadrant, a few additional parameters have to be considered.

  • Agreed upon signal types, communication protocols, and recognizable expectations of behavior. Species which are known to each other depending on treaty status share information regarding subspace frequencies and most effective means of communication with that species. If no treaties exist, then each group will likely have to make a personal decision as to whether to intervene.

  • Common courtesy on Earth indicate ships at sea will, almost without exception stop to render assistance to ships in distress, unless it puts the rescuer in harms way. It is likely this will translate to interstellar travel as well.

  • In addition, given the Federation's technologies wide range of communication protocols their ships are capable of reviewing, receiving and decoding information signals, and discerning them from the background noise of space, including obsolete signals like dedicated radio wave signals.

  • In the event of aliens without agreed upon protocols, there may be types of signals which have greater propagation ranges increasing the chances of being detected. Those ranges of signal are probably monitored because of their ability to be received at great distances. These would likely be used by anyone capable of advanced space travel. These would likely use simple, repetitive signals likely to stand out from background static as a manufactured signal.

  • If two species have never met, then the best that can be hoped for is to send out a simple repetitive signal and hope for it to draw the curiosity of a passing species enough to investigate the signal and try for a hail.

- All things considered, technology that does not use faster than light properties are of limited value in a galactic or vast interstellar empire. A ship lost without FTL communications is unlikely to ever be rescued in a timely fashion. (See: TOS: The Menagerie for an example of a Slower than Light signal being received after decades).


On modern Earth, even if you are unsure of the language of the people receiving the signal, one can always use the simple Morse code signal of called an S.O.S. The signal is composed of simple dots (short sounds) and dashes (long sounds). Three dots, three dashes, three dots.

Amateur radio (ham radio): the best emergency communication system

So now that I’ve gone through several options that you could choose, but obviously from the title I don’t recommend, let’s look at ham radio.

Ham radio is the go-to communication system for pretty much every emergency response system and is what MARS (the Military Auxiliary Radio System) and ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) both use, as well as many search and rescue and other emergency groups.

One of the nice things is that a lot of ham radios can reach the national weather system (NOAA) frequencies. That means that if you have a radio, you can find out what’s going on in the area. If you have a radio scanner, you can listen to what’s going on with emergency frequencies as well as any other that the scanner can reach, and you don’t have to know which one they’re transmitting on. That’s why they call it a scanner. It goes in a loop up through whatever frequencies you tell it to and it stops if it hears someone transmitting.

Here is a list of amateur radio emergency frequencies that you should keep in mind when both looking for radios and coming up with your emergency communications plan:

Here is a list of emergency radio frequencies used on Earth by survivalists. These are just some samples of channels and their attendant uses.

  1. 34.90: Used nationwide by the National Guard during emergencies.
  2. 39.46: Used for inter-department emergency communications by local and state police forces.
  3. 47.42: Used across the United States by the Red Cross for relief operations.
  4. 52.525: Calling frequency used by ham radio operators in FM on their six-meter band.
  5. 162.40: NOAA weather broadcasts and bulletins.
  6. 162.425: NOAA weather broadcasts and bulletins.
  7. 162.45: NOAA weather broadcasts and bulletins.
  8. 162.475: NOAA weather broadcasts and bulletins.
  9. 168.55: National channel used by civilian agencies of the federal government for communications during emergencies and disasters.
  10. 243.00: Used during military aviation emergencies.
  11. 259.70: Used by the Space Shuttle during re-entry and landing.
  12. 296.80: Used by the Space Shuttle during re-entry and landing.
  13. 311.00: Flight channel used by the U.S. Air Force.
  14. 317.70: Used by U.S. Coast Guard aviation.
  • Generally supported by how they can tell it's a distress call without having decoded the message – Izkata Dec 17 '14 at 0:40
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    So... perhaps the simplicity and repetitiveness of the message? – Kevin Krumwiede Dec 17 '14 at 0:51
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    I have trouble believing that an unknown species would know or use earth or federation com protocols. – ths Dec 17 '14 at 0:51
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    @Kevin Krumwiede: That would be most likely. The trouble with Thaddeus' answer is that an unknown species would be using their emergency frequency, which could be literally almost anything, including in-between frequencies . After all, an unknown species won't be using "seconds" for time, and may not be using base 10 numbers either. They'll have their own code system as well. – Joe L. Dec 17 '14 at 1:00
  • @JoeL. - Exactly. We know from various episodes that there are standard UFP distress codes (Code "one alpha zero" is mentioned several times) and even dedicated Federation distress frequencies. That doesn't explain how they know about alien species. – Valorum Dec 17 '14 at 1:03
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If the message is in a known language or the universal translators can decode it, this seems like a non-issue. A message that says "Help! Our engines blew up and we are stranded!" is a distress call; a message that says "Hi, we're bored here and would like to chat" is not.

Assuming that spacecraft have computers capable of translating, at a minimum, all known languages, then it follows that if you cannot translate the message and determine that it's a distress call from the content, then you almost surely have not arranged any sort of technical protocols with these folks to make a distress call otherwise recognizable. I mean, for two races to agree that a certain frequency will be used for distress calls, or that some codeword like "SOS" or "mayday" indicates a distress call, they would have to be able to talk to each other. And if they can talk to each other, than they should each have the other's language in their translation computers. On 21st century Earth such protocols are useful because we don't have universal translators. Just because some people in my country know your language or vice versa doesn't mean that there is any assurance that on any given ship there will be someone who knows the other's language.

Of course even if language is not an issue, there is value to having protocols. If a particular transmission frequency -- or whatever the equivalent of frequencies might be in interstellar communication -- is reserved for distress calls, then ships could make scanning that frequency a routine practice, and it wouldn't be cluttered with noise from non-emergency messages. Having specific code words could eliminate any ambiguity. Especially if aliens are truly alien, maybe what sounds like a desperate plea for help to them sounds to us like a general warning that this area is dangerous, or a routine message to their home base that they had mechanical troubles and will be delayed, or for that matter, maybe to us it sounds like a recipe for a delicious cold drink. Etc.

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