SEAMANSHIP

Soundings - - Contents -

An EPIRB can be the most crit­i­cal piece of safety gear you ever buy — but only if you know how to use it be­fore it’s needed.

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.

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.

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 searc­hand-res­cue cen­ter, the in­for­ma­tion you pro­vided is passed on to au­thor­i­ties. Also, by at­tempt­ing to con­tact you and/or your emer­gen---

cy 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 boats, 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.

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.

An EPIRB is your life­line to be­ing res­cued.

A GPS-en­abled EPIRB, such as ACR’s Glob­alFix Pro can sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce search time.

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