Know How: EPIRBS

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When calamity strikes, there’s no substitute for an Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), a device that should be considered as important as a liferaft. This satellite-monitored electronic signaling device is registered to—and carried by—the vessel, not an individual, and operates on a frequency of 406 MHz to directly contact search-and-rescue (SAR) authorities around the world. The device also typically includes a strobe light and a 121.5 MHz homing beacon to allow SAR crews them to pinpoint a stricken vessel’s exact location once they’ve arrived on the scene—no small task at night in a storm, for example.


EPIRBs are stored in a permanently mounted onboard bracket and can be activated manually or automatically with a hydrostatic release mechanism. Because an EPIRB’s 406 MHz distress signal is only received by SAR professionals, not local maritime traffic, the U.S. Coast Guard is encouraging the development of EPIRBs that also transmit Digital Selective Calling (DSC) signals that will alert other nearby vessels with DSC-enabled VHF radios.

Unlike EPIRBs, Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are registered to and carried by individual sailors. Some PLBs feature both manual and hydrostatic activation, while others are only manually operated. These pocket-sized devices also broadcast a 406 MHz signal that is received by satellites, and typically include strobes and homing beacons. Like EPIRBs, PLB signals cannot be detected by local traffic, but DSC-enabled models are available that can be “heard” by nearby mariners who are also carrying DSC-enabled VHFs.

Offshore sailors are highly encouraged to carry an EPIRB and a set of PLBs, as these technologies have proven to save lives in otherwise desperate situations. 

Photos courtesy of (from left) Kannada Marine, ACR, Ocean Signal, Acr

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