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The push to mandate locator beacons offshore

The National Boating Safety Advisory Council has adopted a resolution recommending that the Coast Guard move forward with a rule requiring pleasure boaters to carry an emergency locator beacon when they go more than 3 nautical miles offshore or, in the alternative, a VHF-DSC radio with integral or connected GPS when they venture out 3 to 20 nautical miles.

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An advisory council committee tasked with looking into a mandatory ELB carriage requirement for offshore boaters says the rule could save at least 10 lives a year and take some of the search out of search and rescue by giving Coast Guard crews a GPS position to home in on. “Beyond lives saved, another big benefit is the reduction in search-and-rescue costs,” says Jeff Hoedt, chief of the Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division. “Rather than do a 10,000-square-mile search, you can do a 1,000-square-mile search [if you’ve got a GPS position]. You’re saving gas, you’re saving time, you’re increasing your odds of saving lives, and there is a reduction in risk to your search-and-rescue crew. Our crews are subject to substantial risks, especially when they are out in bad weather.”

David Marlow, director of product integrity and government affairs for Brunswick’s Boat Group and chairman of the safety council’s Boats and Associated Equipment subcommittee, reported at the Nov. 9-11 meeting in Watsonville, Calif., that the average cost of a search is $150,000 when the victim’s location is known. That soars to $240,000 when searchers have no GPS position.

One search, $1.6 million

The Coast Guard doesn’t want to charge survivors for rescues because it might discourage them from calling for help, but the high costs associated with extended offshore searches came to light in February 2009 after a massive three-day search of the Gulf of Mexico for National Football League players Corey Smith and Marquis Cooper, and friends Will Bleakley and Nick Schuyler, both former players at the University of South Florida. Only Schuyler was found alive, clinging to the boat’s hull.

Afterward the Coast Guard said searchers might have found the boat faster and perhaps saved three more lives if it had been carrying an EPIRB. Others pointed out that the Coast Guard could have saved a big chunk of the $1.6 million search tab and that rescuers could have been spared the risks involved in a long search such as this one.

The Coast Guard — in an April 2008 memo on what it costs to operate its boats, cutters and aircraft — says the direct cost of putting a 41-foot utility boat into a search for an hour is $873; a 110-foot cutter, $1,147; a 210-foot cutter, $1,914; an HU-25 jet, $5,731; a Jayhawk helicopter, $6,530; and a C-130 aircraft, $7,648. Two C-130s; two Jayhawks; 179-, 110- and 87-foot cutters; a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat; and rescue craft from the Air Force, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and Florida’s wildlife commission searched for the players. “The Coast Guard can spend a significant amount of money deploying assets aimed at rescuing people,” Marlow says. “They never say, ‘We won’t come.’ ”

The advisory council wants a rule in place by July 1, 2015, but Hoedt says that probably is an unrealistically short timeline. Many questions must be answered, and there’s a long regulatory process that must play out before any kind of ELB regulation sees the light of day.

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First, the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety and Security Council, a high-level advisory committee to the commandant, must sign off on pursuing the rule. Then, Hoedt says, a lot more detailed data must be gathered for an exhaustive cost-benefit analysis: How many boats will be affected? How much will boaters have to spend on the equipment? What will be the cost of more false alerts as more boaters carry beacons? What are the societal costs of imposing more regulations on boaters?

Also, the advisory council has given the Coast Guard the job of deciding what constitutes a recreational boater for the purposes of this rule. Does it include those who use paddleboards, canoes and kayaks? And what kinds of ELBs will satisfy the requirement — EPIRB, PLB, the Spot GPS satellite messenger, DeLorme’s inReach two-way satellite communicator? The latter two are privately operated satellite communication and alert systems, but neither as yet is Coast Guard approved for emergency signaling. Hoedt says the Coast Guard could decide to allow devices other than EPIRBs and PLBs to satisfy the carriage requirement.

The costs of signaling devices are around $150 to $250 for a VHF-DSC radio with GPS or connectivity to GPS (for 3 to 20 nautical miles offshore), $100 for a Spot, $250 for an inReach, $300 for a PLB, and $700 for an EPIRB. For the purposes of cost-benefit analysis, the federal government assigns the cost of one life lost at $6.3 million, so if ELBs and DSC radios only save 10 lives a year, that’s a direct benefit of $63 million, plus tens of millions saved in search costs.

“There’s no doubt our recommendations were spot-on,” Marlow says. And although they are based on preliminary findings, “I’m confident the [more detailed] numbers will bear them out.”

Inexpensive to comply

For most boaters, complying with the rule should not be costly, Marlow says. A fixed or handheld VHF-DSC radio with integral or connected GPS gives boaters who venture out to 20 nautical miles an inexpensive, reliable emergency alert system that works in tandem with the Coast Guard’s Rescue 21 network of towers, which cover 41,871 miles of coastline — all of the continental United States, the Great Lakes, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and the Marianas.

The towers are designed to receive VHF-DSC distress calls and mayday alerts from as far as 20 nautical miles offshore. If the VHF has integral GPS or is connected to an external GPS, the distress call will have the disabled vessel’s GPS position embedded in it.

Watchstanders also can use the towers to fix lines of bearing to locate the source of the signal. Marlow says those who venture out beyond 20 nautical miles should see the value in spending a little more to buy an ELB or to rent one from BoatUS — $65 a week for an EPIRB with integral GPS, $45 a week for a PLB.

Marlow notes that an EPIRB owner must register it and either have a unit with integral GPS or connect the unit to an external GPS to send an emergency alert with the position embedded in it. A VHF-DSC owner must apply for a Maritime Mobile Service Identity number, program the radio with it and, just as with an EPIRB, either have a radio with integral GPS or connect it to an external GPS to send an alert signal with a position embedded in it.

Marlow says the resolution passed unanimously. After a year of work and significant comment from the industry, consumer groups and search-and-rescue experts, “I think the resolutions were the right ones to make and will eventually take the search out of search-and-rescue operations in the future,” Marlow says.

See related articles:

- Electronics 2013

- A resolution to require emergency locator beacons

- Rescues aren't cheap

February 2013 issue