Personal Locator Beacons (PLB) – 406 MHz GPS EPIRB Technology

Personal Locator Beacons (PLB) are the smaller cousins of devices found on many safety minded vessels, the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). While we focus here on marine related uses of personal locator beacons, many outdoor enthusiasts use these devices in a variety of other outdoor activities. Solo boaters should be especially interested in wearing a locator beacon since there is no crew onboard to effect their own rescue. Radio beacons need to be registered with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which provides SAR authorities with your personal contact information and ties it to the PLB you are using. This information is very helpful in determining the validity of questionable alarms and provides a way for authorities to contact family members.

Personal Locator Beacons (PLB) - 406 MHz GPS EPIRB Technologyb

Operation – PLB’s transmit on the same 406 MHz frequency used by the search and rescue satellite system known as SARSAT-COSPAS. Most devices provide an additional 121.5 MHz homing signal to assist nearby rescuers. The United States, Russia, Canada and France established the SARSAT-COSPAS satellite and ground station system for receiving locator beacon transmissions and locating vessels or people in distress. Devices using the 406 MHz frequency offer superior performance over older equipment using the 121.5/243 MHz frequencies. A video overview of the SARSAT-COSPAS system is available on the ACR Electronics website. PLB’s are designed to worn on a personal flotation device or fit into a pocket and convenient to carry. Purchase prices begin around $550 and there several options available to boaters.

ACR Electronics manufacturers two PLB products, the AquaFix 406 and ResQFix. The devices either carry their own onboard GPS receiver or can download position information from an external GPS receiver source. Once activated, the PLB transmits a personal identification code, and its location coordinates. Having GPS available data narrows a search area down to 100 meters. ACR beacons are available for rent in the United States through PLB Rentals, LLC and in France through Oscoor. French journalist Daniel GrandClement can credit his personal survival to renting a PLB prior to a fall overboard in rough seas off the coast of Yemen. Rental cost for a PLB starts at $60 per week.

McMurdo Emergency Locator Beacons – McMurdo uses the same advanced technology found in its EPIRB product line in its Fast Find Plus GPS. Fast Find utilizes an internal GPS receiver to provide accurate position coordinates for SAR authorities. This PLB is advertised as being the smallest, lightest device available in the market.

Responsible Use – Use PLB’s as a signal of last resort and only after all other possibilities of self help are exhausted. There must be a threat of imminent loss of life, serious injury or property damage requiring assistance to justify using one of these devices. Misuse of a PLB is a serious federal offense in the United States and is subject to a hefty fine.

Coast Guard Issues Safety Alert Urging Beacon Registration

The growth in the use of Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) and Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) by boaters is encouraging and the devices are proven to be lifesavers. Improvements to electronics technology have made these radio locator beacons both smaller and less expensive.

Required to be onboard commercial fishing vessels for many years, lower costs seen for this newer equipment have made the beacons more affordable for recreational boaters. To perform effectively, it is important for users to register their beacons.

Unique Identification Number (UIN)

Each EPIRB and PLB sold is programmed with a Unique Identification Number (UIN) that allows search and rescue (SAR) personnel to tailor their response to that particular beacon. Registration information maintained for each beacon includes a vessel description, owner information, and emergency contact numbers.

Correct registration data allows SAR personnel to contact a trusted source like a family member and secure addition information on vessel trip plans and who might be onboard the boat. Detailed vessel descriptions allow for positive identification of a vessel by rescuers at sea. Beacon registration information needs to be up to date and accurate for this feature to be useful.

The Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking (SARSAT) System

SARSAT utilizes a network of stationary and orbiting satellites to detect and locate signals coming from radio locator beacons. Newer 406 MHz technology allows EPIRBs and PLBs to be found much quicker than previously used beacons operating at 121.5/243.0 MHz frequencies. There are now beacons on the market that include a GPS receiver to provide the exact position of a vessel in distress. Beacons transmit their UIN to allow SAR personnel to access their registration information.

Registering an EPIRB or PLB

The U.S. National Beacon Registration Database is maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Officials recommend these steps be taken to register radio beacons:

Visit www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov to register new or unregistered EPIRBs and PLBs
Each beacon owner registered with NOAA receives a registration sticker that is applied to the beacon. Check to insure the UIN shown on the sticker is the same as the one found on the beacon. If the numbers do not match, contact NOAA at 817-4515 or 1-888-212-SAVE (7283) immediately
Information on file with NOAA can be verified online at anytime and beacons need to registered every two years.

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