Q&A GPS-enhanced beacons

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What are the benefits of a GPS-enhanced EPIRB or PLB?

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Coast Guard casualty investigations reveal that EPIRB users are largely unaware that GPS significantly improves vessel location and rescue efforts.

The addition of GPS typically provides a location accurate to within about 325 feet within 50 to 120 seconds, according to the Coast Guard. By comparison, the location of a 406 beacon without GPS can be determined within about three miles by the first satellite pass and within one mile after three satellite passes, according to the BoatUS Foundation, which runs an EPIRB rental program.

Since the 2008 sinking of the commercial fishing vessel Alaska Ranger with 47 aboard in the Bering Sea, the Commercial Fishing Safety Advisory Committee has recommended that all new EPIRBs aboard commercial fishing vessels include an integral GPS receiver. In that incident, the 189-footer’s Category I EPIRB was not GPS-enhanced, which resulted in a delay in analyzing the data. But a PLB carried by a fisheries observer on board did have GPS and it took only 11 minutes to identify that beacon’s distress signal. Still, five crewmembers died.
As of July 22, 102 people had been rescued in the United States this year through the Cospas-Sarsat satellite rescue system, including 52 people at sea in 17 incidents, according to NOAA. The Coast Guard strongly recommends upgrading to GPS-enhanced distress beacons. Visit www.boatus.com/foundation for information about the BoatUS Foundation’s rental program.
Keep in mind that beacons must be registered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Changing boats, addresses or phone numbers requires another registration. Online registration can be done at www.sarsat.noaa.gov.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.