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On-board panic button sends covert signal

In a sign of the times, KVH Industries Inc. has introduced a covert satellite-based emergency alert system for yachts, using a panic button to call for help when pirates, terrorists or robbers threaten.

“If you are anchored off the Pacific coast of Mexico and someone comes aboard the vessel who is not supposed to be there, you want to be able to send out that [covert] message,” says Chris Watson, spokesman for KVH of Middletown, R.I., a manufacturer of satellite-based television, communications and navigation hardware.

Watson says the unit comes with two panic buttons, one that usually goes on the bridge and the other in the captain’s quarters.

“You can hide it under a counter top, or in a desk or cabinet,” he says.

Quickly press the button, and it sends, by Inmarsat satellite, a covert emergency signal with the time, vessel identification and location, and a short, pre-programmed distress message imbedded in it.

The alert goes out to Maritime Rescue Coordination Centers that monitor EPIRB emergency alerts, and to at least one other designated recipient — maybe the owner’s company, home or security service.

“The bad guys have no idea you’ve done it,” Watson says.

KVH’s $3,295 eTRAC ship security alert system has integral GPS and operates on the Inmarsat C frequency. The unit also can send out the yacht’s GPS position when polled by a designated tracking station, or send that position to a tracker at specified intervals without prompts. Watson says an e-mail feature can be added.

There is no monthly service charge, though use of the polling and tracking features costs about a cent per character, Watson says. The unit’s antenna measures 5-3/4 inches high and 6-1/2 inches in diameter at its base, and weighs 2-1/2 pounds. The two panic buttons, and a third button used to test the system, are connected to a box below, the panic buttons hidden no more than 160 feet from the box.

Watson says the world has become a more dangerous place — one where it makes sense to have a panic button on the boat and the capability to send an emergency signal across oceans.

“Satellite communications provide a very good tool for people looking to always be in touch,” he says. “We’ve had inquiries from yacht owners, and they’ve told us, ‘I can use this on my vessel.’ ”