Tossed into the Pacific, the beacon did its job, touching off a $35,000 Coast Guard search
Whether it was an honest mistake or recklessness, a commercial fishing boat owner is on the hook for a $5,500 fine because a crewman discarded a working EPIRB by tossing it overboard, unknowingly activating it.
The Federal Communications Commission issued a forfeiture order Feb. 27 against the owner of the Hawaii-based fishing vessel registered with the Coast Guard as Princess Kay. The false alarm is blamed for wasting $35,000 in resources in the form of 3.5 hours of fixed-wing aircraft flight during the ensuing search.
Coast Guard Lt. John Titchen of Sector Honolulu says a signal was received at 8:49 a.m. Feb. 25, 2008, from an EPIRB registered to the owner of Princess Kay about 150 nautical miles northeast of the island of Oahu. (The owner’s name has not been released because of ongoing legal proceedings with the FCC.)
The Coast Guard says it attempted to reach the 68-foot white fiberglass vessel by radio, but the crew apparently was out of range.
At 10:38 a.m., a C-130 long-range search aircraft was launched from Barber’s Point Air Station in Hawaii. After about two hours of searching, it located the Princess Kay some 18 nautical miles from the spot at which the EPIRB signal had been pinpointed.
The crew of the plane contacted the vessel with its five crewmembers on VHF channel 16, and reportedly was told by the captain that the older EPIRB had been discarded overboard after a new one was installed, and there was no actual distress.
“The EPIRB activated when it hit the water,” says Titchen. “Incidents like this just convey the need for mariners to dispose of this equipment properly.”
According to the FCC report, the Princess Kay crewmember who disposed of the older EPIRB was acting on orders from “an executive” of the Princess Kay Fishing Corp. When Coast Guard personnel interviewed that individual, he told them a new EPIRB was purchased on Oahu and installed while the boat was in port on Hilo.
There was not enough time to return the old EPIRB, so it was placed in a plastic bag and stowed, the “executive” told authorities. While at sea, he advised a crewmember to “take care of the bag,” according to the FCC report.
There was a language barrier, according to the FCC report, and the situation was further complicated by the fact that the crewmember “did not know what an EPIRB was.”
It has not been established whether the crewmember took the EPIRB out of the plastic bag before throwing it away.
In his defense against the fine “for willfully violating the law” and “transmission of false distress communications,” the fishing boat owner told authorities he didn’t realize anything had happened until the Coast Guard aircraft appeared overhead.
“We told them they were in violation with the FCC,” says Titchen. “They were very cooperative.”
The fishing company claimed it did not willfully violate the rules, could not be held responsible for the actions of the employee, and lacked the ability to pay the fine. After lengthy discussions with the FCC, the fine was reduced from an original $8,000 to $5,500.
“Spending a lot of time responding to an EPIRB case like this ties up our assets for real emergency cases,” says Titchen.
There’s a right way to do it
The International Maritime Organization and the Coast Guard say the proper way to dispose of an unwanted EPIRB is to remove the battery and ship the unit back to the manufacturer or simply demolish it.
In any event, an EPIRB should also be unregistered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration when it has been disposed of or transferred to a new owner.
“We realize this does create a bureaucratic event, but it is in the best interest of fellow mariners,” says Lt. John Titchen of Coast Guard Sector Honolulu.
The Coast Guard refers cases involving non-distress activation of an EPIRB to the Federal Communications Commission. FCC penalties can range from a warning letter to a $10,000 fine.
Titchen says since rescue services changed Feb. 1 to monitoring only the 406 MHz frequency — and no longer the 121.5 MHz frequency — many boaters think they can simply dispose of their older EPIRBs.
“They presume no one is listening, but the Air Force still reads 121.5 MHz when searching for aircraft,” says Titchen. “If those are not discarded properly as well, there could be real problems.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue.