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Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBS), Emergency Locator Transmitters, Personal Locator Beacons, and MOB (Man Over-Board) Alarms

Rescue beacons are a standard safety item for travelers venturing beyond the safety of civilization. Commercial vessels, recreational boats, planes, kayakers and hikers traveling beyond the close reach of emergency response personnel have greatly increased chances of survival with transmitting beacons. The premise of the device is simple: when activated, the beacon transmits a locator signal received by emergency rescue personnel. There are three different types of rescue beacons: EPIRBs, Emergency Locator Transmitters and Personal Locator Beacons. EPIRBS are designed for ships at sea. They activate manually or automatically upon submersion, at which point they transmit a locating signal to satellites and a registered identifying distress signal. Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs) are carried aboard aircrafts. Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are designed for personal use, and are typically the least costly option. EPIRBs and PLBs should be a serious consideration for anyone traveling out of range of VHF radio, cell phones or other means of communication.

What to look for when selecting EPIRBs

There are two main types of EPIRBs in modern use, Category I and Category II.
Both types transmit at 406 MHz. (Older style Class A and Class B EPIRBs transmit at 121 MHz, which becomes obsolete in 2009.) The difference between Category I and Category II boils down to the mounting bracket. All EPIRBs must be able to activate when submersed, but the brackets housing Category I type deploy automatically while Category II require manual release. EPIRB signals are only effective above the surface of the water, therefore, EPIRBs are designed to float. Some newer generation EPIRBs also integrate GPS signals. They either have the capacity to link with an external GPS receiver or have GPS built in. GPS has the advantages of faster locating and higher accuracy. EPIRBs without GPS rely on Doppler bearings from orbiting satellites for locating, and are accurate to within 2 nautical miles, whereas EPIRBs with GPS send out a locating signal within 4 minutes accurate to within 100 yards.

Personal Locator Beacons

Personal Locator Beacons are a smaller version of the EPIRB which can be carried with you. They are great for small boat applications, hikers, campers, hunters, climbers, kayakers: you get the idea. They work on the same frequency as EPIRBs, and are great because they can be used in so many different applications. They usually weigh less than one pound and fit in a pocket. The compromises include half the battery life of a normal EPIRB, not required to float, require manual activation and do not have the strobe function of many EPIRBs.

Registering your EPIRB or PLB

Once purchased, a critical part to successful rescue is registering your EPIRB or PLB. The free website is www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov

Registration provides emergency contact numbers, vessel and identifying information so rescuers have an idea of what to look for. Otherwise they are literally searching in the dark. Registration also provides a means of validating authentic distress signals before a Search and Rescue is commenced, as over three quarters of all EPIRB transmissions are false alarms. Fill out the registration online, or download forms from the website and return by mail or fax. There is a section for additional information which can be used like a float plan, providing travel plans and the number of persons onboard. These forms can be updated daily if needs be. EPIRBs and PLBs are transferable, but if you loan one to a friend, this information must be updated with NOAA online.

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