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Clock is ticking on 121.5 MHz EPIRBs

Rescue entities in the United States and Australia are turning up the volume in reminding mariners and aviators of the impending phase-out of 121.5 MHz analog distress beacons.

Beginning Feb. 1, 2009, the International Maritime Organization and International Civil Aviation Organization, and subsequent rescue authorities, will cease the satellite monitoring and processing of distress signals on the 121.5 MHz frequency. After that date, the older model EPIRBs are “likely to go completely undetected in an emergency,” according to the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

One Australian rescue center official told the Sydney Morning Herald he suspected “50 to 60 percent” of recreational boat owners were still unaware of the phase-out.

As of Feb. 1, only 406 MHz beacons will be detected and processed for worldwide search-and-rescue. The digital transmitters offer more accurate positioning than the older generation EPIRBs, along with faster detection and a more powerful and clearer signal. Also, because 406 beacons must be registered, rescue dispatchers quickly know the identity and address of the skipper, and details of the vessel.

Registration is free and can be done online at www.beaconregistration. Or it can be mailed/faxed to NOAA by calling (888) 212-SAVE. Beacon registrations must be updated at least every two years or when such vital information as emergency contact phone numbers changes.

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This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue.