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HELP TAKE THE SEARCH OUT OF SEARCH AND RESCUE

Dennis Clements thought he was going to die. A trip to an island off the coast of Puerto Rico had turned into something you normally see only in the movies. After surviving four days of gale force winds in the North Atlantic his 34-foot sailboat capsized, trapping him below his vessel in the icy waters.

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The COSPAS-SARSAT network of search and rescue satellites provides the link between you and the people who will come and rescue you. Your emergency beacon sends a message with your identity and location up to the satellites which then download it to the command and control stations that contact local search and rescue organizations who dispatch a team to your location.

When he made his way to the surface he watched with joy as his boat righted itself, although it was partially filled with water. Joy quickly turned to horror as he watched what was left of his mainsail catch the storm’s wind, causing his boat to start sailing slowly but steadily…away from him.

He found himself cold, wet, alone and 250 miles from land in the middle of a dark night with nothing to help him except his personal floatation device and its contents.

Although his sailboat was slowly abandoning him to the frigid water it was also saving his life. The vessel-mounted emergency beacon onboard had started broadcasting its distress signal to the search and rescue satellites (SARSAT) orbiting overhead as soon as the boat started to go down.

HOW BEACONS WORK

Emergency beacons are the first link in a 5- part system that was established in the 1980s by several nations to provide a way for search and rescue teams to quickly find and rescue travelers. Your emergency beacon (1) sends an emergency message by radio to (2) satellites that are part of COSPAS-SARSAT search and rescue network. They then relay the message with your location to (3) a ground terminal station which then routes it to (4) the mission control center. The mission control center then alerts (5) the nearest rescue coordination center which dispatches search and rescue resources to come and get you.

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The COSPAS-SARSAT network of search and rescue satellites provide the link between you and the people who will come and rescue you. Your emergency beacon sends a message with your identity and location up to the satellites which then download it to the command and control stations that contact local search and rescue organizations who dispatch a team to your location.

Most beacons today use a powerful 406 MHz signal to send the rescue message to the satellites containing your location and other information about you. They also have a shorter range signaling device that runs on 121.5 MHz that acts as a homing beacon to help rescuers find your more specific location. Once activated they continue to send out your distress signal continuously until the battery dies, which is 24- 48 hours.

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A USCG helicopter-borne rescue swimmer practices rescue techniques off the coast of New Jersey in tandem with a Coast Guard surface vessel.

In addition to radio transmitters, most beacons today include a GPS unit. The SARSAT satellites can get a general location using the Doppler shift between two or more satellites, but the GPS provides your rescuers with a much more precise location fix. So make sure the beacon you buy has a GPS, and if you have an older model you should consider upgrading it with the GPS capability.

“EPIRBS AND PLBS ARE A ONE-TIME PURCHASE, UNLIKE SATELLITE PHONES OR TEXT MESSAGING DEVICES WHICH MAY HAVE RENTAL, SUBSCRIPTION, OR AIRTIME FEES.”

Since emergency beacons are intended to only be activated as a last resort they are made with a very strong signal. As a result, it can punch through obstacles like heavy cloud cover or storms. However, like all satellite communication devices, they do need an unobstructed view of the sky to be most effective.

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PLBs, like this one held by a Coast Guard sailor after a successful rescue, are manually activated and broadcast continuously for 24 hours or more.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS, DECISIONS…EPIRB OR PLB

There are two major types of emergency beacons that you can use at sea: an emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) or a personal locator beacon (PLB). Both are battery powered, contain two kinds of beacons and send their signal to a satellite network, which then alerts search and rescue of your plight. But what are the differences between the beacons and why do you need two kinds?

A manually activated EPIRB like this one saved the life of this man and his wife when their ship capsized.

EPIRBs are designed for installation on a vessel and are registered with the vessel. Although they may be connected to the vessel’s electrical system when they are activated they run on an internal battery. Since they are vessel-mounted, EPIRBs are much larger than PLBs which means that they can have larger batteries and stronger signals. The battery is designed to last at least 48 hours, which is critical if you are far from shore and it will take a long time for a surface vessel to reach your location. You don’t want your beacon running out of juice before search and rescue can get to you. They can be activated manually, by contact with water, or by pressure when it sinks below the surface with the vessel to which it’s attached. Some models have the ability to detach from their mountings and float back to the surface which gives them a better chance of getting their signal up to the satellites.

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EPIRBs can be manually activated, like this one mounted on the bulkhead of the vessel, or automatically activated when submerged a few meters below water. They continuously broadcast your emergency message for 48 hours or more.

PLBs are designed to be carried on your person or gear and they are registered to you rather than your vessel. One benefit of this personal beacon is that it’s independent of the vessel you are on. Another is that you can move from vessel to vessel and still have a beacon even if the vessel you are on does not have one. Since they are small enough to carry in a pocket or on your personal floatation device they also have a smaller battery. Instead of the minimum of 48 hours broadcasting time for the EPIRB, the PLB has a minimum time of only 24 hours. For this reason they are best used when staying within a few miles of shore. If you are going farther you should use an EPIRB. A PLB is activated by hand rather than going active when under water. Although you can get them in a very basic design, to maximize its effectiveness and your safety you want to get a beacon that includes the 406 MHz signal, the 121.5 MHz homing signal, and GPS to provide a more precise fix on your location.

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In an emergency situation, people can be rescued by sea vessels, like this USCG ship, and receive initial medical care before being returned to shore.

DON’T BE THAT GUY

Emergency beacons are only to be used in dire straits if it’s a life or death situation or a medical emergency. Every year people trigger their emergency beacons because they either run out of fuel while still within range to use their radio or cell phone to call for help, or they don’t know their location, or their radio breaks down, or some other non-emergency situation. These are all situations that can be resolved without dispatching rescue helicopters and rescue divers or Coast Guard cutters. So don’t be that guy who wasted those resources that might be needed by someone in a real emergency.

This PLB must be opened to activate it. Others have buttons on the outside. The protective cover helps prevent accidental activation while those with external buttons take fewer steps to use.

This PLB must be opened to activate it. Others have buttons on the outside. The protective cover helps prevent accidental activation while those with external buttons take fewer steps to use.

Personal Locator Beacons should be kept on your body at all times while afloat or stored alongside other survival gear in personal floatation devices like this one.

Personal Locator Beacons should be kept on your body at all times while afloat or stored alongside other survival gear in personal floatation devices like this one.

REGISTRATION IS VITAL AND MANDATORY

Your beacon will not be of any use to you if you do not register it before you go on your trip. The registration gives you a Unique Identifier Number (UIN) which is transmitted when you trigger the beacon, along with your GPS location if your beacon has a built-in GPS. As part of the registration you enter information about your vessel (for an EPIRB) or yourself (for a PLB), but you should also update the ‘Additional Information’ field of the beacon registration with details of your trip, your passengers, and any medical conditions or needs they may have. This will make the job of the search and rescue team much easier and take hours out of the search and rescue process. You should update the information in your registration each time you go out so that SAR can ensure they are equipped for the emergency when they get to you.

“THE REGISTRATION GIVES YOU A UNIQUE IDENTIFIER NUMBER (UIN) WHICH IS TRANSMITTED WHEN YOU TRIGGER THE BEACON, ALONG WITH YOUR GPS LOCATION IF YOUR BEACON HAS A BUILT-IN GPS.”

So now that you know about one of the most valuable and important pieces of gear you can have on your vessel or on your person, go out and get them. EPIRBs and PLBs are a one-time purchase, unlike satellite phones or text messaging devices which may have rental, subscription, or airtime fees. Plus, you can update your registration whenever your trip details change or you change vessels. If you are the captain of the vessel you may be required to have an EPIRB installed onboard, depending on what you do and how far from shore you go. Even if you are not, it is incredibly cheap insurance against a seagoing disaster.

You should inspect your emergency beacons, both EPIRBs and PLBs, on a regular basis to ensure they are working properly. Most versions have test features which allow you to actually send a test message to the satellite and get a return message indicating that it worked properly.

WHAT INFORMATION IS REQUIRED FOR YOUR REGISTRATION?

Registration of your beacon is not only important, it is required. The reason it is required is that the information you provide with your registration is vital to the success of the search and rescue mission. It gives SAR the information they need to ensure they bring the right people and equipment with them. The following lists the information needed for each type of beacon. To complete your registration go to www.beaconregistration. noaa.gov.

EPIRB:

  • Owner/operator name and contact information.
  • Vessel name, use, method of power, vessel use and type, survival vessels on board, radio equipment, telephone information, registration number, home port, length, capacity, additional data and home port.
  • Emergency contact information, alternate contact information and telephone numbers.
  • EPIRB type, manufacturer and model information.

PLB:

  • Owner name, address, email and phone numbers.
  • Usage information, specific usage information, type of transportation and additional information.
  • Emergency contact information name, alternate name and telephone numbers.

 

Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the February 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.