The Most Important Reason to Take an Emergency Beacon When You Boat, Hike, or Paddle
Please note that our beacon rental program has ended as of January 1, 2020
A big part of outdoor recreational safety, whether in the air, on land or water is being prepared for the “unexpected.” In particular, it is important that you have the means to request help should an emergency arise. That’s because, despite what many tend to believe, it is often difficult for rescuers to find someone who is lost and in need of rescue. An essential element of being able to return home to your loved ones, or receiving prompt medical attention, is to have the right signaling equipment.
One piece of equipment to definitely consider adding to your gear list is an emergency satellite beacon. This article will offer basic information about it with a focus on land and water use. Plus, it will underscore the importance that you remember, on your next hiking or water adventure, to take a beacon with you.
What is a Beacon
A beacon is an electronic signaling device that alerts search-and-rescue services in the event of an emergency by transmitting a coded message on the 406 MHz distress frequency via satellite and earth stations to the nearest rescue coordination center.
Types of Beacons
Common emergency rescue beacons transmit at 406 MHz, can be detected by satellite, and are referred to in conversation by their abbreviations: ELTs, EPIRBs, and PLBs. This article will focus primarily on EPIRBs and PLBs.
Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELT)
ELTs are for use in an aircraft and can be manually activated by the pilot or automatically activated by a G-switch. ELTs transmit for at least 24-hours and some may also transmit a position within the distress alert. This position may be a one-time input from the aircraft's navigation system or may be periodically updated from a GPS processor internal to the ELT. The one-time position input may not represent the most accurate position of the ELT since it may not be known when that position was last inserted into the message.
Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB)
EPIRBs are for use in maritime applications and divided into two categories. Category I EPIRBs are activated either manually or automatically. The automatic activation is triggered when the EPIRB is released from its bracket. Category I EPIRBs are housed in a special bracket equipped with a hydrostatic release. This mechanism releases the EPIRB at a water depth of 3-10 feet. The buoyant EPIRB then floats to the surface and begins transmitting. If you own a Category I EPIRB, it's very important that you mount it outside your vessel's cabin where it will be able to "float free" of the sinking vessel.
Category II EPIRBs are manual activation only units. If you own one of these, it should be stored in the most accessible location on board where it can be quickly accessed in an emergency.
406 MHz beacons are digitally coded and transmit distress signals without delay. This means that even a brief inadvertent signal can generate a false alert. To avoid getting a call from the Coast Guard make sure that when you test your EPIRB you follow the manufacturer's recommendations carefully. Initiating a false request for assistance resulting in the launch of Search and Rescue efforts can result in fines of $1,000 or more for each instance.
Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)
PLBs are portable units that operate much the same way as ELTs and EPIRBs. These beacons are designed to be carried by an individual person instead of on a boat or aircraft. Unlike ELTs and some EPIRBs, they can only be activated manually and operate exclusively on 406 MHz. Like EPIRBs and ELTs, all PLBs also have a built-in, low-power homing beacon that transmits on 121.5 MHz. This allows rescue units to hone in on the distress beacon once the 406 MHz satellite system has provided the necessary position information. Some PLBs also allow GPS units to be integrated into the distress signal. This GPS-encoded position dramatically improves the location accuracy down to the 100-meter level…that’s roughly the size of a football field!
Another benefit of PLBs is that they are very easy to pack and add very little additional weight. Many hikers even attach them to the shoulder harness on their backpack where they can quickly access them if needed. And boaters attach them to the shoulder of their life jackets for easy and quick access.
In turn, PLBs are not only extremely effective, but they are also very cost efficient. Unlike other types of electronic signaling devices, there are no monthly service fees in addition to the original cost of purchase. Instead, PLBs offer a simple, reliable, and no-nonsense way to request help when you most need it.
All Beacons Need to Be Registered
You must register your beacon after purchase. It is the law and, without registration, Rescue Coordination Centers (RCC) won’t be able to react as quickly … and ultimately this may delay a Search and Rescue (SAR) response should you be in an emergency.
The process is quick, easy, and you can do register online. If you have a 406 MHz beacon and have not registered it, please do so by contacting the National 406 MHz Registration Database at this link beaconregistration.noaa.gov/RGDB/index.
When to Use a Beacon
When you need it most, search-and-rescue organizations instruct that beacons are satellite signaling devices of last resort, for use when all other means of self-rescue have been exhausted, where the situation is grave with imminent danger and bodily harm or valuable property will occur without assistance. In simpler terms, use the beacon only when absolutely necessary and after trying other communication devices.
You can find beacon survival stories from air, land, and water on the 406 Survival Club page at acrartex.com/survivors/
Rent a Beacon to Try It Out
Please note that our beacon rental program has ended as of January 1, 2020
The Sea Tow Foundation’s Beacon Rental Program allows you to try a beacon before buying one and use it as a chance to become more familiar with beacon use.
Beacons rent for one week or more: EPIRBs rent for $95 a week including shipping and PLBs rent for $80 a week including shipping. Beacons ship to you from Southold, New York using UPS Ground and willarrive to you a few days before you depart for your boating trip. The box will also include a return shipping label to use on the boxafter your boating trip so that you can send the beacon back to the Sea Tow Foundation. The use of beacons for this program is intended for recreational boating use only and the Sea Tow Foundation suggested that you.plan ahead and reserve your beacon two or more weeks before you need it. .
The Sea Tow Foundation’s Beacon Rental Program was made possible from a generous donation of beacons from ACR Electronics. Funds raised by this program are used to grow all Sea Tow Foundation programs including: Beacon Rental Program, Designated Sober Skipper Campaign, and Life Jacket Loaner Program.
How a Beacon Rescue Works
- Distressed aviator, hiker, or mariner activates a beacon (ELT, EPIRB or PLB).
- Beacon transmits a 406 MHz emergency message containing your Unique Identifier Number (UIN) to the LEOSAR (polar orbiting) and GEOSAR* (geostationary) satellite system; set up by Sea Tow Foundation for you at time of rental.
- The satellites relay the 406 MHz emergency message to a ground station called the Local User Terminal (LUT). The LUT calculates the location of the signal by measuring the Doppler shift caused by the relative movement between the satellite and the beacon and forwards the location to the Mission Control Center (MCC).
- The MCC continues to receive information from additional satellite passes and further refines the beacon position (2.3 nm search radius). An alert message is generated that is combined with the registration information from the database and is forwarded to the appropriate Rescue Coordination Center (RCC).
- The RCC makes contact with the persons listed in the database to verify the existence of an emergency and gathers additional information about the beacon users. The RCC will dispatch the closest, capable Search and Rescue (SAR) forces. Local SAR forces launch a rescue mission and use the 121.5 MHz homing signal to pinpoint the beacon.
On average, worldwide, this notification (steps 2 through 5) take up to one hour for non-GPS beacons. Beacons rented from Sea Tow Foundation made by ACR Electronics are GPS self-locating beacons that provide GPS position data in their first transmissions, the search radius is reduced to .05 nm (100 m) and the notification can take as little as three minutes. Data provided by Cospas-Sarsat.
COSPAS-SARSAT is an international, humanitarian satellite-based search and rescue system that has helped save over 20,000 lives worldwide since its inception in 1982.
SARSAT is an acronym for Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking. COSPAS is an acronym for the Russian words "Cosmicheskaya Sistyema Poiska Avariynich Sudov," which mean "Space System for the Search of Vessels in Distress," indicative of the maritime origins of this distress alerting system.
The system, which operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, detects and locates transmissions from emergency beacons carried by ships, aircraft, and individuals. Use of the COSPAS-SARSAT system is FREE to the beacon operator.
Sponsored by Canada, France, Russia, and the United States, the system aims to reduce the time required to alert rescue authorities whenever a distress situation occurs. The rapid detection and location of a downed aircraft, a ship, or an individual in distress are of paramount importance to survivors and to rescue personnel.
The COSPAS-SARSAT system consists of emergency radio beacons (distress beacons), equipment on satellites in low-Earth polar or in geosynchronous orbits, ground receiving stations also called Local User Terminals (LUTs), Mission Control Centers (MCCs), and Rescue Coordination Centers (RCCs).
The Most Important Reason to Remember an Emergency Beacon – It Can Save Your Life!
Sea Tow Foundation
With a focus on safe boating practices that result in fun on the water, the Sea Tow Foundation – a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization – was established in 2007 by Sea Tow Founder Capt. Joe Frohnhoefer. After his passing in 2015, Captain Joe’s legacy continues as the Foundation brings attention to the number of preventable boating-related accidents, injuries, and deaths, and directly addresses prevention methods through education and awareness. More than 400 life jacket loaner stands are now available across the United States and the Foundation’s Designated Sober Skipper program continues to grow. For more information, please visit BoatingSafety.com.
True North Wilderness Survival School
True North Wilderness Survival School, LLC provides its clients with the skills and knowledge to confidently deal with emergencies in remote and austere environments thereby improving their ability to explore their world, help others, and be more effective leaders. True North works with a diverse mix of clients, including individuals, organizations, educational institutions, and professional responders, such as EMS, search-and-rescue, and law enforcement. For more information, please visit ExploreTrueNorth.com.
ACR Electronics, Inc.
ACR Electronics, Inc., designs and manufactures a complete line of safety and survival products for the brands ACR, Ocean Signal, ARTEX and NAL Research. Available products include Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs), Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs), ARTEX Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs), Search and Rescue Transponders (SARTs), Strobe Lights, Life Jacket Lights, Boat Search Lights, and other associated safety accessories. ACR’s facility Quality Management System (QMS) is certified by TUV USA and is certified in accordance with AS9100C / ISO 9001:2008 standards. Recognized as a world leader in safety and survival technologies for over 60 years, ACR has provided life-saving equipment to the marine, outdoor, aviation industries as well as to various government agencies worldwide. For more information, please visit ACRARTEX.com.