give your name, contact information, boat
description, and special needs (any important health information about you and your
crew, such as if someone aboard is diabetic
or takes important medications). You’ll also
be asked to name at least one emergency
contact person – two is even better – who’ll
know your whereabouts and be able to verify
that the boat is in the area where the emergency signal originated. That information will
confirm that the signal is a genuine distress
activation rather than a false alarm.
Whenever any information changes or
you’re traveling beyond your normal home
waters, make sure to update your contact
person with your itinerary, the crew aboard,
and any other details that might be helpful
if rescue personnel are called in an emergen-
cy situation. Also, update the “Comments”
block on the NOAA beacon registration web-
site (it takes about 10 minutes) with the same
information. You might submit, for example,
that between certain dates you’ll be travel-
ing between Narragansett Bay and Delaware
Bay. When Coast Guard personnel get your
distress message, they’ll go to the info you’ve
posted online and try to reach your emer-
gency contact. If the distress info coming
from the beacon puts the boat in the same
area described in your comments and/or
confirmed by your emergency contact, they’ll
know the emergency is real and – possibly
within minutes – dispatch a boat or plane.
NEW WAYS OF ZEROING IN
As the rescue aircraft or vessel nears your
vicinity, the rescue crew begins looking for
your boat, or for people in the water. But
even the “football-field radius” information
What is Doppler shift?
Imagine hearing a siren on an approaching police car. The pitch sounds
higher as the car gets nearer, and lower as the siren passes — all due to
sound waves. The equipment on the LEOSAR satellite senses the wave
shift from the beacon’s signal as the satellite moves closer to farther
from the beacon, then utilizes this shift to calculate its distance
from the beacon.
Can’t I just use my cell phone to send emergency info?
Cell phones are no substitute for modern GPS-equipped 406 EPIRBs or
PLBs. They must be within range of a tower, often are not waterproof,
and don’t give a continuous signal that will be picked up by an RDF on
a rescue vessel. However, if you have a signal, and the circumstances
allow cell phone use, do it. A better alternative may be to use your
properly connected, programmed, and registered VHF if in range,
which will tell the Coast Guard who you are, and what boat you are on.
Depending on the nature of your distress, the Coast Guard may have
you shift communications to a cell phone, or activate your EPIRB or
PLB, to assist in locating you and to be sure they don’t lose contact
if your cell phone or VHF dies or you lose the signal.
How do different countries work together on a rescue?
The entire SAR system is an international program called Cospas-Sarsat. When a distress signal is received, it’s relayed to the Mission
Control Center nearest to the activated beacon, regardless of the
nationality of that center. The center then coordinates with the
beacon’s country of registry to verify the signal.
What if a commercial ship is closer to my position?
Through the worldwide Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue
System (AMVER), Coast Guard personnel will ascertain if an AMVER-participating commercial ship is in the vicinity of the distress situation,
look at the ship stats, and determine if it should be dispatched to help.
Are false activations of EPIRBs a big problem?
The registration requirement allows rescuers to verify a signal before
putting people and equipment at risk. Over 90 percent of 406-MHz
signals are not emergencies; 85 percent of these are resolved using
registration information before any search is undertaken. Most of
these false signals result from accidental activation or water triggering
an automatic EPIRB, as when a vessel sinks at the dock; a few involve
hoaxes. Any false signal can lead to serious injury and loss of life of
rescue personnel, and draw assets away from truly distressed boaters.
The FCC prosecutes misuse. Unlike cell phones and other devices, you
don’t “activate” your beacon until the emergency; beacons have a test
feature so you can make sure they are functioning. — T.N.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Far left: An hour and a
half after activating his
EPIRB, Kevin Savage
and his cat were rescued
by the USCG off the
coast of Georgia, after
their sailboat began tak-
ing on water. Right: Row-
ers Adam Kreek, Jordan
Hanssen, Patrick Flem-
ing, and Markus Pukonen
were rescued after their
29-foot rowboat cap-
sized, ending their
trans-Atlantic attempt. PH