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Register to be rescued

As federal officials continue a campaign to verify information in their emergency locator beacon database, some 40 owners or users of the devices say the identification codes on their units do not match those on file.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been mailing and e-mailing owners and users of registered EPIRBs, personal locator beacons and emergency locator transmitters, asking that they make certain their units are properly registered. The letters ask beacon owners to check the numbers on their devices against those on file in the beacon registration database to make sure they match.

Owners of 185,000 of an estimated 248,000 registered EPIRBs, PLBs and ELTs had been contacted by mid-July.

A clerical error in registering an EPIRB on the fishing vessel Lady Mary was a factor in an 87-minute delay in the Coast Guard's search for the scalloper, which sank March 24 off New Jersey. Six of seven crewmembers died. The unique 15-character identification code embedded in Lady Mary's EPIRB signal differed by one character from the EPIRB code assigned the 71-footer in the NOAA database, according to testimony at a Coast Guard inquiry.

A clerk working for a NOAA contractor erroneously transcribed a "C" from the mailed-in registration form as an "O." (For more, see "EPIRB error hinders rescue response.")

How to check your beacon

NOAA asks that owners and users check the code number the manufacturer printed on the beacon against the proof-of-registration decal NOAA sent them when they registered it.

The manufacturer number normally is on the outside of an EPIRB, but some manufacturers print it inside, under the battery, according to the Coast Guard. Check that number against the database at NOAA's registration Web site, If the numbers don't match, immediately call NOAA at (301) 817-4515 or (888) 212-7283 to correct the error.

Update your information

NOAA also is asking beacon users to update their registration data - vessel description, owner information and emergency contact numbers - which must be renewed every two years. Rescuers typically try to contact an EPIRB owner or the owner's emergency contact before launching a rescue.

Register to be rescued

A properly registered and deployed beacon is one of the surest ways to be found.

You must register your beacon; it's the law, plus not doing so could delay a response and hinder rescue efforts. NOAA estimates the number of U.S. beacons at 300,000 and thinks 50,000 of them are unregistered - most of those are probably PLBs.

EPIRB owners/operators who have not registered their beacons can do so:

  • online at the beacon registration database system
  • by faxing a completed registration form to (301) 817-4565 (Be sure your handwriting is legible because a clerk will have to transcribe the information and enter it into the database.)
  • by mailing a filled-in registration form to Beacon Registration, NOAA/NESDIS; NSOF, E/SP3, 4231 Suitland Road, Suitland, MD 20746

EPIRB done right

Paul Doughty and his wife, Linda, were rescued by the crew of the Coast Guard cutter Reliance -- along with their friends, Berlinda and Antoinette Cole -- after deploying a properly registered EPIRB. They activated the emergency beacon when Doughty's 48-foot sailboat began sinking about 200 miles off Charleston, S.C. (Credit: Lauren Jorgensen/Coast Guard)

Here are a few steps to be sure your beacon is ready when you need it:

  • Once an EPIRB is registered, make sure the identification code printed on the beacon is the same as the code on the letter and the proof-of-registration sticker NOAA sends back to you. The confirmation letter has all of your registration information on it, including the beacon's make and model; its ID code; the owner's name, address and telephone numbers; descriptive information about the boat; and emergency contact numbers.
  • Update your EPIRB information every two years and as necessary between registrations - for instance, if you move or your emergency contact numbers change or you buy a new boat. If you register online, you can change the information on the site at any time.
  • Test your EPIRB by following the manufacturer's instructions. Never activate your EPIRB to see if it's working.
  • Replace batteries as often as the manufacturer recommends. Some experts advise that after two battery replacements it's time for a new unit.
  • To dispose of your EPIRB, remove the battery and then ship it back to the manufacturer or render it inoperable by demolishing it, and unregister it.
  • If your EPIRB comes with a bracket, realize that the two are a system. When the EPIRB is in its bracket, a small magnet in the bracket keeps an electronic switch in the beacon in the "off" position so it won't activate if it gets hit with spray or rain. Outside the bracket, or improperly placed in the bracket, the EPIRB can automatically and accidentally activate when exposed to spray. (See " EPIRBs - a primer.")
  • Follow the manufacturer's directions for care of the device.
  • Consider an EPIRB with GPS. Though it may cost a few hundred dollars more, the GPS calculates the position and sends that information in the emergency signal as soon as the EPIRB activates. Rescuers don't have to wait for a Leosar satellite to pass overhead to get a location. "If I were buying another EPIRB I would get one with a built-in GPS," says Nicholas Barham, who had to wait about eight hours for rescue when his Val 31 trimaran started to sink during a 2008 voyage from the Azores to England (See "For want of a drogue.")

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