There is no 911 at sea. The premise that boaters must be self-reliant has guided emergency preparedness at sea for millennia. But now a device not much bigger than a cell phone provides a worldwide satellite link that, within moments of activation, summons help, indicates its exact position and gives rescuers information about the vessel in distress, which is then relayed to a network of military ships, aircraft and merchant vessels ready to respond anywhere on the planet. Welcome to the age of 911 at sea. Not all emergency position-indicating radio beacons or personal locator beacons are equal, though. Here's a close look at the options and what they mean in terms of rescue time and additional preparations.
With rare exception very near the north or south pole, when an EPIRB or PLB is activated, the signal is instantaneously picked up by satellites hovering above the earth and routed electronically to the appropriate rescue authority — the U.S. Air Force if over land or the U.S. Coast Guard over water — and then to a rescue coordination center in the region of the rescue. (Both the USCG and foreign rescue authorities receive this information when in foreign waters.) From there, the staff of that RCC attempts to verify the signal is intentional — 96 percent are false alarms.
"The minute we determine it's a distress, we're going right away," says Lt. Cmdr. Mark Turner, a U.S. Coast Guard pilot and now a Coast Guard spokesman regarding search and rescue. Turner says the first place they look is the "additional data" section of the EPIRB registration, which boat owners can update online at will (beaconregistration.noaa.gov). If the float plan seems to corroborate the EPIRB signal, Coast Guard assets are dispatched immediately. If registration comments aren't helpful, they call emergency contacts listed on the vessel's EPIRB registration. "We're going to fully investigate, but we're not going to spend hours," Turner says. In fact, the Coast Guard will delay up to 30 minutes, but no longer, accounting for the $4 million spent responding to false alarms each year just in aircraft fuel and maintenance. (If half an hour doesn't seem long, stand in an ice-cold shower for 30 minutes — and then go update that EPIRB registration.) Once the RCC gives the mission to a Coast Guard crew, it takes another 10 to 30 minutes to get an aircraft or boat headed toward the signal, plus flight time at 140 knots for a helicopter.
EPIRB Versus PLB
As far as rescuers are concerned, there is little difference between a pocket-size PLB and a larger EPIRB. Determining which is best comes down to how equipment pros and cons match intended use. "The best beacon to have is the one you have with you when you need it," says Chris Wahler, marketing manager for ACR Electronics (acrelectronics.com). "Having one on your person is much better than one still on the boat if you somehow get separated." It's hard to beat the peace of mind of a PLB tucked into a front pocket, particularly for those who boat alone or those aboard a small boat that might capsize. PLBs are also small enough to pack a spare inside a life raft and are perfect for ditch bags.
But that pocket-size convenience comes at one important price. EPIRB antennas are designed to work best when the beacon is floating in the water. PLBs are waterproof and many float, but they transmit well only when kept above the water. "With a PLB, if that antenna is in the water, that's where the signal is going to go," Wahler says. "An EPIRB is autonomous. It floats in the best transmit position. You have to think about how you'll use a PLB in advance. Treading water with one hand holding up that beacon is going to be difficult after a while."