EPIRBs: Your Lifeline to Search and Rescue

This illustration shows what happens when an EPIRB signal is set off in an emergency. Image courtesy of NOAA

This illustration shows what happens when an EPIRB signal is set off in an emergency. Image courtesy of NOAA.

OK, first of all, what the heck is an EPIRB, and why do you need one? Let’s get the acronym out of the way first. EPIRB is short for “emergency position-indicating radio beacon.” It’s an electronic safety device that alerts search and rescue agencies of your position in case of a marine emergency, such as a sinking or a fire, or a life-threatening onboard medical emergency. So do you need one? The answer is “maybe,” but let’s explore the reasons why you should at least consider having one aboard.

Today, all designated EPIRB devices are classified as “406 MHz” devices, referring to the frequency they use to communicate with search and rescue (SAR) satellites, which then pass along your information to SAR agencies. When deployed, a 406 MHz EPIRB sends an emergency signal with your location and personal information to the closest SAR facility, no matter where you are on the globe, for a period of 48 hours or more. They’re accurate to within about two nautical miles. Some EPIRBs are equipped with a supplemental GPS signal and cost a little more, but this feature narrows your location radius to within only 300 feet—much more accurate.

EPIRBs are also classified by the way they deploy—either automatically when submersed to a certain depth (Category I), or manually (Category II). Obviously, a Category I is better in a situation where the boat is sinking and you may not have time to deploy it, but Category II units are great in “ditch bags,” which are taken off the boat and into a life raft or dinghy when the vessel must be abandoned, or for smaller boats, where the EPIRB is easily accessible (not stowed below) in an emergency.

This is a top-of-the-line 406 MHz Category II EPIRB with supplemental GPS. Category II units are manual release; Category I units automatically deploy. Photo courtesy of ACR.

This is a top-of-the-line 406 MHz Category II EPIRB with supplemental GPS. Category II units are manual release; Category I units automatically deploy. Photo courtesy of ACR.

While you might think that EPIRBs are only for offshore boaters, coastal boaters shouldn’t discount the benefits of owning an EPIRB, even if they’re generally boating close to land (think winter or boating alone). The key is to think about what might happen in an emergency, and the likelihood of your ability to get off a distress (Mayday) call with your exact location when things are going badly wrong. Additionally, boaters who have acute medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or other conditions that might warrant immediate attention in life-threatening situations, should seriously consider having an EPIRB aboard.

As it true with all electronics, the prices of EPIRBs have come down greatly in the last 20 years or so. In the late 90s, it wasn’t uncommon to pay upwards of $2,000 for a top-of-the-line 406 MHz, GPS-enabled, Category I (self -release) EPIRB, and you didn’t get an LCD display for self testing. Today, the same unit costs around $800, and a Category II (manual release) unit sells for about $600 to $700. Plus, you generally get that aforementioned LCD for making sure the unit is operating correctly. Personal (wearable) 406 MHz/GPS EPIRB units generally cost between $250 and $400.

This is a 406 MHz, GPS enabled, wearable EPIRB. Wearable EPIRBs are great for boaters who often find themselves out on the water alone. Photo courtesy of ACR.

This is a 406 MHz, GPS enabled, wearable EPIRB. Wearable EPIRBs are great for boaters who often find themselves out on the water alone. Photo courtesy of ACR.

OK, so $600 isn’t a small amount of cash to part with. Luckily, there are options. First, many life raft/safety companies rent EPIRBs for folks making a one-time offshore trip. Otherwise, you might want to consider a new class of device called a “personal AIS beacon,” or PAS. These devices were approved by the Federal Communications Commission in 2012. They use the Automatic Identification System (AIS) to send standard alert messages to any AIS-equipped vessel or rescue craft in a four-mile radius, including any AIS-enabled electronics on your own boat or others—handy if you fall overboard and your crew or others are looking for you. They typically run about $200 to 400. Another type of personal device is a “personal locator beacon,” or PLB. PLBs differ from their PAB cousins in that they provide worldwide coverage, both on the water and on land. Keep this in mind, however: PLBs and PABs are not substitutes for an on-board EPIRB unit; they’re designed for you personally, not for your boat.

If you’re like me and you often boat alone (hey, I can’t always talk people into getting up at four a.m. to go crabbing or fishing), or you often go out in challenging conditions, you should consider at least a personal emergency device such as a PAB or PLB, if not a wearable 406 MHz EPIRB. I can’t begin to explain the sense of security they offer. And if you’re a serious offshore or coastal boater and often find yourself out of radio and cell phone range, there’s really no question whether you should have an EPIRB aboard or not. You should — if not for you, for your guests and family.

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