Don’t Wait For An Emergency To Learn How To Use Your EPIRB - PassageMaker
Understanding how your EPIRB works and how to operate it is better to do before disaster strikes.

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If your vessel has an EPIRB, you’re not alone in an emergency. Distress signals can be received and acted upon within minutes, typically taking less than an hour for your position to be known to within 3 miles. That’s almost a miracle for a $500 purchase.

There are different types of EPIRBs and mounting brackets to suit various boats. Register your beacon, test it routinely and train your crew in its deployment as part of your safety routine.

Seaman Ashleigh Wilson, a boatcrew member at Aids to Navigation Team Baltimore, holds a personal emergency position indicating radio beacon on a pier located in Curtis Bay, Md., Dec. 9, 2010. Crewmembers at ANT Baltimore carry PEPIRBs while servicing aids throughout the upper Chesapeake Bay.

Seaman Ashleigh Wilson, a boatcrew member at Aids to Navigation Team Baltimore, holds a personal emergency position indicating radio beacon on a pier located in Curtis Bay, Md., Dec. 9, 2010. Crewmembers at ANT Baltimore carry PEPIRBs while servicing aids throughout the upper Chesapeake Bay.

EPIRBs work by transmitting a coded message on the 406 MHz distress frequency via Cospas-Sarsat satellites, which downlink the signal to Earth-based stations. Computers then transfer information to the nearest rescue coordination center. In U.S. waters, the distress information is relayed to the Sarsat Mission Control Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s satellite operations facility in Suitland, Maryland. From there, the information is sent to Coast Guard rescue coordination centers.

Intended for use when you are in grave or imminent danger, an EPIRB sends your coded message in a series of short digital bursts, with your beacon’s unique identification. A GPS-enabled EPIRB has a built-in transmitter that can greatly reduce search-and-rescue time, typically alerting rescue services within three minutes and to a positional accuracy of 500 feet. GPS-enabled is the most effective type of EPIRB.

A Category 1 EPIRB activates automatically with a hydrostatic release and can float free if the vessel sinks. Plan to mount a Cat 1 EPIRB clear of overhead obstructions so the beacon can bob to the surface following auto-deployment without the risk of getting trapped inside the boat. A Cat 1 beacon can also be manually released.

A Category 2 EPIRB is designed for manual deployment. It can be mounted above or below deck in an easily accessed but protected location. Some of us keep our Cat 2 EPIRB in a dedicated pocket in a floating ditch bag so it will be close at hand if we have to leave the boat in a hurry.

The Coast Guard assists a distressed Canadian mariner to Hilo, Hawaii, after his vessel began taking on water about 80 miles southeast of the Big Island, May 20, 2018. The 73-year-old mariner was on a voyage from Panama City, Panama, to Honolulu when the Coast Guard watchstanders received an EPIRB alert. 

The Coast Guard assists a distressed Canadian mariner to Hilo, Hawaii, after his vessel began taking on water about 80 miles southeast of the Big Island, May 20, 2018. The 73-year-old mariner was on a voyage from Panama City, Panama, to Honolulu when the Coast Guard watchstanders received an EPIRB alert. 

EPIRB registration is mandated by the Federal Communications Commission and enforced by the Coast Guard. Before use, an EPIRB’s specific identification code must be registered by following manufacturer instructions or by visiting beaconregistration.noaa.gov. You’ll be asked to provide your vessel’s information and your emergency contact information.

In the event that your EPIRB’s distress alert is relayed to a search-and-rescue center, the information you provided is passed on to authorities. Also, by attempting to contact you and/or your emergency contacts, rescue authorities are better able to determine if the distress alert is real or unintentional. If the alert is real, they will have information that improves the chances of finding you quickly — and saving your life. If the alert is unintentional, search-and-rescue resources are not diverted from a potential actual survival scenario.

You’ll need to update the information when your circumstances change — if you get a new boat, or if you change your address or primary phone number. Remember, an EPIRB is registered to a vessel, which means that if you buy a new boat and keep your beacon, you will need to reregister it.

An EPIRB battery is rated for five years of use and must be replaced by the date indicated on the label. A dealer approved by the manufacturer should replace it. If you dispose of an old beacon, do not throw it into the trash. Have the battery removed, label the EPIRB as deactivated, recycle components if possible, and update your information in the registration database.

Routine testing verifies device readiness. EPIRBs have a switch or setting for running test sequences according to manufacturer specifications. Never activate the distress switch except in a real emergency. If you accidentally activate an EPIRB, turn it off immediately. You will get a call from the Coast Guard, but there is no penalty if there was no malicious intent.

Hopefully, you won’t ever have to use your beacon. If you do, remember that EPIRBs are designed to float vertically with a relatively unobstructed view of the sky. The distress signal of a submerged beacon, or a beacon with its antenna blocked by a boat, is unlikely to be received by satellites. Tether the EPIRB’s lanyard to the crew, the boat if it remains afloat or the life raft. If you are in a raft and prefer to have the EPIRB inside, be sure that the aerial is always vertical for the best chance of detection. The battery life of an activated EPIRB is 48 hours.

The basket used to hoist distressed people from danger hangs from an MH-65 helicopter in the sky above Galveston Bay, Texas, Sept 29, 2015. Night operations training prepares air crews for the daunting task of performing a rescue with very little light and low visibility.

The basket used to hoist distressed people from danger hangs from an MH-65 helicopter in the sky above Galveston Bay, Texas, Sept 29, 2015. Night operations training prepares air crews for the daunting task of performing a rescue with very little light and low visibility.

It’s been said that an EPIRB takes the “search” out of search and rescue. Everyone on board should know about the beacon and its operation. The captain should assign responsibility to grab the EPIRB (if not him/herself) in the event that you have to abandon ship. If the EPIRB is stowed in a ditch bag, the person in charge of that bag should ensure that the beacon is, indeed, there.

Most important, “know before you go.” After a trusted friend spent a freezing night clinging to an overturned catamaran, one piece of advice stayed with me: Don’t wait until you are in the water to learn how to activate an EPIRB.

This post first appeared in our sister magazine Soundings in their June 2018 issue. Click here to view it online at Soundings website.

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