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Our summer safety guide - ACR: 50 years of saving lives

On Nov. 10, 2005, Michael Smith was five easy days into the first leg of a trip from Wickford, R.I., to the Virgin Islands when a full-force gale suddenly overtook his 34-foot sailboat, dismasted it and rolled it three times. He found himself foundering 260 miles northwest of Bermuda, with conditions deteriorating, no power and no vessel in sight.

 Smith activated his EPIRB, interfaced with an on-board GPS, and waited, wondering if he would survive. Three hours later he heard the roar of a Coast Guard C-130 airplane. They directed the 500-foot bulk carrier Clipper Eagle to his position, which took him aboard.


But for the urging of his wife, Smith wouldn’t have had the

EPIRB. The one he purchased was an ACR AquaFix I/O P-EPIRB equipped not only with an interface to the shipboard GPS but also an internal GPS so that it could have transmitted his location even if the boat’s unit had been disabled. And, importantly, he had registered it, so information about his boat and trip was available.

When I think of safety at sea I think of scary things. Like black nights in the Atlantic with hard gusts of warm, moist wind cycloning from nowhere, waves towering in bolts of blue-white lightning. Like a silent “whoosh” on a moonless night as an unlit submarine surfaces just off our port side, perhaps not knowing of the near miss. Like the nightmare of suddenly swimming in the ocean, alone, miles from land.

I also think of ACR, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., company that is a leader in safety and survival equipment. The company this year celebrates its 50th anniversary, and I took a factory tour of its 60,000-square-foot plant to get a better idea of how these products are manufactured and tested.

We purchased our first equipment from ACR about 25 years ago, a crew overboard strobe light that we still use today. The strobe makes a signal from a spot in the black ocean to the people still on board, who are frantically searching. ACR makes many signaling devices, and the functionality of even the simplest ones is to my mind amazing. That man overboard light, for instance, must come on when it rights itself in the sea, it must not come on when it’s hanging in place, and it has to remain weather- and waterproof in a tough environment. Its strobe must meet certain international regulations, and it must float right-side up and high enough out of the water so that its strobe can be easily seen, though not so high that it will be top heavy. And that’s a simple device.

Consider the GlobalFix 406 EPIRB with on-board GPS or the AquaFix personal locator beacon. These devices have to do so much more. While bobbing around in the sea one antenna must hear the “whisper” of satellite transmissions providing GPS information while an adjacent antenna is “screaming” out its lat/lon location and identification to satellites orbiting from more than 500 miles to many thousands of miles above the earth.

And these emergency signaling devices have to do all this with circuitry that not only maximizes GPS acquisition and signal transmission, but does it in a manner that will use minimum current to enhance battery life. Any glitch and someone — perhaps you or me — could die.

When boaters buy ACR products, they’re exhibiting a remarkable degree of trust. ACR president Paul Frank is well aware of this. In the main assembly room, and elsewhere about the building, are banners with the same reminder: “We will build quality products knowing they’re used to save lives.”

“There used to be this perception that people were totally self-sufficient,” says Frank, 65, who has been with the company since 1980. “There is now a much more realistic perception of the reality that accidents do happen even to the best-prepared and -trained people. And with the infrastructure that civilization has in place, we can usually survive when that happens and go out and have fun again. Much of what we at ACR do is about signaling. And that’s what brings the rescuer to you.”

“Accelerated life testing”

To test products and components under extreme conditions, ACR uses several huge box-like machines called Thermatrons, which provide “accelerated life testing.” These environmental test chambers are capable of a temperature range from minus 72 degrees C to 170 degrees C, and can cycle through that range in about 20 minutes. They also test for response to humidity, shock and vibration.

A UV chamber tests for long-term effects of that arch enemy of marine gear. On my visit, the company was testing lanyards and inks for labels to make sure they’ll still be good after hanging out in the sun for years. A salt fog machine lurks in a sealed room and fills its chamber with a permeating, warm, salt-infused mist that can vastly accelerate the corrosive process. A dark-screen room allows precise candela testing so that the strength and effect of lights will be known, not guessed. The so-called “Pressure Pot” tests for watertight integrity at great depths for products that are dive-rated.

Each EPIRB is plugged into a testing device with a ground plane that simulates the beacon floating in the water for a “return loss test” using a spectrum analyzer. Each beacon also is checked by equipment that conducts the “39 burst test” (transmission bursts) for 45 minutes to check all parameters of the transmission characteristics required by satellites. The test data for each unit ACR sells is retained, and when the device comes back to the company for something like a battery change, the device is compared to that report. The company even records its precise weight.


The actual design and manufacturing process is as impressive as the testing. The heart of the 406 EPIRB, for example, is the oscillator, which maintains the critically important stable frequency. ACR manufactures its patented 406 oscillators, rather than outsourcing them.

When it does order material or components from other manufacturers, that material must pass through an inspection station to assure that what’s ordered is exactly what’s received. During my tour the company was using calipers and other instruments, such as a “smart scope,” to compare incoming products with blueprints and designs. I was impressed with the smart scope, which interfaces a camera with 400-times magnification with a computer to let the operator compare a component in-hand with its plans, to make sure it precisely conforms to specifications. This is obviously critical for electronics, but it also is important for more basic parts. For example, if a plastic case isn’t exactly as designed, seawater could leak in.

In the assembly room, everything gets a “smart sheet” to ensure that it goes where it’s supposed to go and in the manner planned. Some work is done by hand, but assembly of such items as circuit boards is done by a process called surface mount technology. Picture a whirring, clicking army of sophisticated mini-robotic machines that assemble the tiny electronic “gizmos” to the boards. At the end awaits a heat tunnel and cooling chamber to flow the solder and then solidify it.

And to make plastic stay together, ACR uses ultrasonic welding, not old-fashioned gluing. Labels no longer are glued on but printed using special inks and pads that have withstood the assault of the UV chamber and other tests. The parts warehouse — and every area that holds products — is climate controlled, all documented with temperature and humidity recorders. A documentation section keeps track of the processes and generates the instructions that help people like us use the products.

Testing for quality control is performed repeatedly during the construction processes. ACR says the quality systems of this facility have been registered by Underwriters Laboratory to international standards (ISO 9001:2000 series standards).

Impressed as I was at all the high-tech wizardry, I wasn’t prepared for the finale: In a large back room were a bunch of guys happily working in a down-to-earth machine shop with equipment so fine it made me want to apply for a job.

Product improvement

In addition to products for pleasure boaters, ACR, which has about 200 employees, builds devices specifically for the military, as well as commercial and general aviation. Its also makes commercial marine equipment, including the SOLAS-approved Bridge Suite with ECDIS (Electronic Chart Display Information System), which interfaces with all other relevant systems on board. That system includes a Simplified Voyage Data Recorder (SVDR), which is somewhat like an airplane’s “black box.” It records relevant information for the preceding 12 hours and is stored externally so that it will float free. ACR also makes products for the general outdoor market for such activities as hunting, fishing, hiking and canoeing.

I asked Frank about the affordability of his products for the average guy like me. He was kind enough not to ask me about the value of my life or that of my wife or daughters. Instead, he said, “We have to get it right in this job, and we do everything we can to get it right. Lives depend on it.”

Frank says ACR is constantly making changes to upgrade products as a result of testing. And he points out that the price of some equipment has come down, even as the devices have improved. “When we first introduced EPIRBs in 1990 they were huge and very expensive — around $2,000 retail,” Frank says. “Now they’re around $600 and up retail, smaller and more accurate.”

Frank also emphasizes the importance of EPIRB registration, which I can’t overemphasize. Today, you can register your EPIRB online. And when you take a trip (hunting, canoeing or cruising far offshore), you can go online and update the description of your boat and give your route and destination and other critical information, such as health issues, specific to the trip (go to ).

If you have the right equipment and use it correctly, it’s possible for search experts to determine where you are within about 110 yards of your position. That’s remarkable. Response time also has improved in the last several years.

Frank says ACR has resisted the trend to move all manufacturing offshore. He says boaters and other outdoor enthusiasts should carefully consider the impact of foreign competition, particularly in the area of quality. “One of the concerns that we as a country should have is whether the foreign approvals are as valid as the approvals issued by our government,” Frank says. “We also need to be concerned as to whether international agreements can water down the effectiveness of our own regulations. If our government has to accept standards of other countries, and those standards aren’t as high as U.S. standards, we as consumers may have a problem. And then there is the question as to whether units actually produced and sold are the same as those submitted to our government for the certification.”

Overall, the ACR veteran sees a bright and busy future in the areas of both personal safety and homeland security. “What more exciting thing can you do than save lives?” he asks.

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