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Emergency Distress Beacons: EPIRBs, PLBs and More

DATE POSTED:April 30, 2020

The amount and type of emergency communications equipment you need onboard will differ with where and how you boat. Coastal voyaging requires different devices than offshore cruising, and personal beacons differ from position identifiers for a vessel in distress. Let’s examine four common ways to alert search and rescue (SAR) authorities when you need assistance and the best uses for each device.

EPIRB vs PLB EPIRBs

Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) are signaling devices that help locate a vessel in distress. These devices interface with the worldwide service of COSPASS-SARSAT, the international satellite system for SAR. The greatest chance of survival is being found quickly so these beacons come with an average activated battery life of 48 hours and they’re indispensable when going offshore.

An EPIRB is registered to the vessel and transmits a short burst of data when it’s activated. Most EPIRBs today function on the 406MHz bandwidth and their signal can be picked up anywhere on the globe as opposed to the older and less expensive 121.5 MHz units whose signal was designed to be picked up by airplanes flying overhead. Some EPIRBs include both bands and use the 121.5 MHz as an additional homing signal for greater accuracy. Some also have integrated GPS to broadcast not only distress but also a specific location and they’re called GEPIRBs.

Pricing for EPIRBs starts around $900 and they come in two flavors – those that are self-activating once submerged and those that are manually deployed. You can ship EPIRBs by mail and you can also take them on airplanes in your checked luggage.

PLBs

A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) on the other hand is a small radio beacon that is registered to a person rather than a ship and therefore can be carried from boat to boat. A PLB initiates a SAR effort for an individual if activated. PLBs work on either a 406MHz frequency, 121.5MHz, VHF DSC and/or AIS and there are a number of manufacturers producing different kinds.

Once activated, the PLB sends a signal that is transmitted to the nearest earth station, which contacts a local Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) or SAR agency. PLBs can generally guide rescuers to within a few hundred feet of the victim and some units also have a strobe light that will help onsite searchers pinpoint the exact location at night or in times of limited visibility like fog.

A PLB comes with a long-lasting lithium battery that remains dormant until you activate the unit. Once in use, PLB batteries are generally good for 24 hours of operation in colder temperatures but may last 5-6 hours longer in milder climates.

PLBs are designed to attach to your clothing or PFD so they’re always with you and ready to work, which is good since accidents don’t happen on schedule. If you’re in the water with an activated PLB, try to keep it above the surface and pointing at the sky. Don’t turn off your PLB to save battery life because this can interfere with SAR efforts. Expect to pay $250-$500 for a PLB that can be used in both marine and backcountry applications.

Responsibilities that come with using an EPIRB or PLB

You need to register EPIRBs and PLBs, which is free. This gives the SAR organizations personal information about the type, size and name of your vessel as well as your name, address, emergency contact, phone and any medical conditions. Having this information may speed up response time and will allow authorities to reach your family or an emergency contact. You need to update your data every two years. Register your beacons at beaconresgistration.noaa.gov.

If you set off an EPIRB or PLB accidentally, call the U.S. Coast Guard to cancel the alert. Frivolously calling for emergency assistance is considered a felony so make sure you let someone know if the alert is not real.

Differences between PLBs, EPIRBs and satellite messengers

PLBs and EPIRBs do one thing – they broadcast your or your vessel’s location via satellite in case of an emergency. They work worldwide and in conjunction with governments and rescue agencies around the globe. They work once activated and don’t need an expensive subscription service.

Satellite messengers like the inReach or SPOT can send SOS messages plus some limited one and two-way messaging, depending on the model. You can communicate with people back home to say you’re ok and relay a GPS position. However, personal trackers or satellite messengers, work on subscription plans, usually paid monthly. Also, these devices work on a different satellite network with theoretical worldwide coverage but signal strength may vary.

VHF vs cellphone for emergency calls

Mention a VHF radio to any small boat owner and the immediate question is, “Why do I need one if I have a cellphone?” The answer is, “You may not,” but relying on a phone while fishing offshore or cruising in out-of-the-way coves may not be safe, not to mention that cellphones are poor swimmers. On the other hand, cellphones have their own advantages primarily in that they offer secure (private) communications that can only be heard by intended parties. Let’s look at the differences and advantages of each.

Advantages of a VHF

VHF (very high frequency) radios are designed specifically for maritime communications and are monitored and recognized by entities that don’t necessarily communicate by cellphone such as bridge tenders, fuel docks, marinas and the U.S. Coast Guard. Here are some other benefits.

Connectivity and Range

VHFs work on line-of-sight so they don’t perform well around corners and behind islands but they do have a greater reach across open water than cellphones and that’s important when you’re beyond three miles offshore. Channel 16 is dedicated to distress and hailing calls so if you run into trouble, you can connect automatically to maritime assistance agencies like the Coast Guard or a marine towing service. You can also stay connected to boating friends in the area all of whom can listen in on a conversation. You can share fishing tips or ask if anyone has spotted your kids running off with the dinghy.

VHFs come in fixed mount or handheld versions. Fixed VHFs usually have more features and up to 25 watts of power, which means they output signal farther (approximately 25 miles) especially with a remote antenna mounted up high. Handheld VHF radios have 1 or 5-watt power output and can reach 3-8 miles when used 5-10 feet above the waterline. (Expect a battery life of 8-20 hours depending on use.) Handhelds have the benefit of being independent of your boat’s electrical system in case you lose power and they can be used in the dinghy while exploring or visiting other vessels. (Technically, you need a special license to use one ashore).

Both fixed and handheld VHF models offer boater-specific functionality that phones just don’t have.

Digital Selective Calling (DSC)

The DSC feature (built into most VHF models today) is a function that alerts boats in your area to your distress call. At the push of a button, DSC alerts not only authorities, but also boaters near you who are most likely to be able to render aid quickly due to their proximity. GPS-enabled, the DSC call allows others to pinpoint your location even if you’re unable to verbalize it.

Automatic Identification System (AIS)

AIS is a transponder on other vessels that allows you to identify these ships by their call sign and alerts you to their bearing, course and speed. It’s the preeminent collision avoidance system on the water. Some VHF radios that are AIS-enabled allow you to track these boats and that comes in handy in low visibility conditions like fog or nighttime.

Weather

You can receive real-time NOAA and SAME alerts for nautical weather forecasts usually found on VHF channels 1, 2 and 3. Some radios have up to 10 weather channels. If you’re out of cell range, a good weather forecast can make the difference between a great day of fishing and an ordeal.

Weatherproofing

Cellphones don’t like water and they don’t float unless in a case. However, VHF radios are built to take rain, splashes and in serious cases, even a dunking. Most fixed mount radios are waterproof to certain standards including IPX 6 (splash-proof), IPX 7 (submersion to 1 meter) or IPX8 (fully immersed in more than 1 meter). This makes them ideal for mounting under a T-top or on a center console dash. Some handheld radios float so when you do lose your grip on one, you can always circle back and pick it up.

Size and price

Today’s VHFs (both handheld and fixed mount) are sleeker and smaller and they’re usually easier on the wallet than pricey new cellphones. Value model handhelds start below $100 and fixed mount versions run $130-$800 depending on features.

Fresh features

Today’s VHFs come packed with features including loudhailer functionality that will also sound pre-programmed fog signals. Some can even pinpoint the location of where crew fell overboard with their integrated MOB button.

Advantages of a cellphone

Cellphones are ubiquitous so chances are you already have one so you don’t need to spend money on another device like a VHF. There are also other inherent benefits to communicating via cellphone.

Privacy

Conversations on the radio aren’t private but with a cellphone you can give out personal information such as you’re a credit card number if you’re requesting a tow from a private on-water assistance provider. Cellphones provide secure point-to-point communications so you can even call your nearby buddy and tell him where the fish are biting without sharing that information with everyone else in the vicinity.

Size

No matter how new or how sleek, VHF radios are still bulkier than most cellphones so you can tuck one in your pocket easily and make a call any time.

Variety of information

As long as a cellphone is within range, there are numerous kinds of information it can deliver including GPS location, tide data, news alerts, and weather that is delivered in detail and in a format that’s familiar to you. You can even take send/pictures and video of what is happening on the vessel to someone who can help. For example, if your engine cuts out or you don’t know how to use an electronics feature at the helm, you can Facetime or Skype someone who can help on the spot. VHF radios, even those with extra functions, are focused on maritime issues and cannot deliver the same variety of features.

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