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Satellites have long been saving lives

A total of 195 Americans were saved last year with the help of the international Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking system, or SARSAT, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Maritime rescues accounted for 154 of the 195 lives saved, says Lt. Shawn Maddock, NOAA SARSAT operations support officer.

Alaska had the most rescues with 49 people saved, followed by Florida (39) and Texas (32). Since its inception 28 years ago, the program has supported more than 26,800 rescues worldwide, including 6,253 in the United States, according to NOAA SARSAT.

When a satellite detects a distress signal from an EPIRB or personal locator beacon, it bounces the alert back to a ground station and, ultimately, to the SARSAT Mission Control Center in Suitland, Md. The signal is then processed and forwarded to the nearest Rescue Coordination Center, operated by either the Air Force or the Coast Guard. At that point, staff at the Rescue Coordination Center will pull the registration information and attempt to contact the beacon's owner, then alert the nearest search-and-rescue unit.

"Basically the satellites do all the work for us," says Maddock. "The human element comes in once we submit the information to the proper rescue agency."

Only rescues in which the satellite signal was the initial source of information are included in the 2009 total, Maddock says. If a boater has contact with the Coast Guard by cell phone, satellite phone or radio before a beacon is activated or detected by a NOAA satellite, then that rescue would not count in the year-end tally. "We sometimes go back to a case a month or two later just to verify," he says.

Maddock did not have numbers for the rescues initiated by other sources.

Last year saw 88 fewer satellite-initiated rescues than 2008, which was down from 353 in 2007. There's no one definitive cause for the reduction, Maddock says. It could be a result of fewer people on the water because of the economy or more rescues initiated by cell phones. Or perhaps boaters are being safer. "It could just be that the Coast Guard has done a better job of educating people," he says.

Almost a year after the switch from the 121.5 MHz frequency to the 406 MHz digital frequency, Maddock says the system has 263,101 registered 406 EPIRBs in its database.

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See related article:

- One giant leap for vessel-tracking

This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.