By Joan Conover, s/v Growl Tiger, Morgan OI-51 Draft: 5’6” Homeport: Hampton, VA

Planning to sail to the US, Europe, or the Caribbean? Before heading out, give thought to your emergency notification devices.

In an offshore emergency, Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs), Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) and Satellite Emergency Locator Devices with SOS functions such as Garmin InReach, SPOT, Globalstar and others, are viable emergency notification devices.

The EPIRBs and PLBs use specific satellite systems to alert government organizations. Satellite emergency locators, such as satellite phones or Global Position Systems (GPS), use a different system, sending SOS messages to a commercial emergency satellite service, (GEOS).

The two systems, one governmental with various satellite assets and one commercial, complement each other. As GEOS will contact the governmental services as well as other emergency contacts.

But to utilize any of these emergency services, you have to do a few critical things. These include providing suitable power for the device and useful information for any rescue attempt. An understanding of the processes involved is useful.

Provide Power

First of all, devices need power. For those using batteries, good batteries should be used. It is especially important for EPIRBs and PLBs that only approved batteries be used, not secondary vendor batteries. This is not a place to save a few dollars. For other battery-supported devices, new Lithium batteries, or those recommended by the manufacturer, are critical for best transmission.

Schedule battery check/replacement as a part of your pre-voyage activities. For some satellite emergency locators, a low battery may not be immediately known. When batteries are low, strength of transmission is jeopardized. Incorrect or low batteries may mean your emergency signal is not sent properly.

Register Your Emergency Device Correctly

All types of emergency notification devices require registration giving details of the vessel and/or individuals aboard. These details support rescue efforts. Unregistered or incorrectly registered devices may cause delayed or no emergency assistance. In an emergency, both EPIRB and satellite locator devices (with SOS function) can be used together to complement rescue efforts, so correct registration of both is key.

EPRIBs are registered with the vessel’s home country through their appropriate governmental agencies. For satellite locator devices, registration is a private service. In fact, SOS buttons send to the same vendor, GEOS, and its GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center. This is the only global search and rescue coordination center for satellite emergency notification devices. They offer services for yearly fees, through the vendors of the devices or separately.

EPIRBs and PLBs also require re-registering; don’t let your service agreement or registration expire. If expired, the data and information is dropped from the databases after a certain time. When no data is available for a device, rescue efforts may not be deployed rapidly; in some third world countries they may not be deployed at all.

Satellite locator devices usually have a yearly plan with a fee; the GEOS SOS function is purchased in addition, unless the device includes the service in their bundled product. Check to determine your active devices, services and expiration dates.

Choose Your Contact Person

Most important when registering a device is providing a well-informed and dependable contact person who can be reached via phone to verify the emergency. This should not be anyone on board, nor should it be the owner of the device. (The listed owner will also be contacted.)

The emergency contact person is critically important. It does not help if the person has no idea the vessel is on passage, or can provide no details about the vessel, or can’t be reached because they are camping.

This person should have information on the vessel, its location/passage plans, and all crew members on board. Include the type of vessel, life raft description, EPIRB information, MMSI numbers, details on other safety and communications equipment (such as satellite phone numbers, radio types, etc.) and any special health needs of crew members.

A good example of information to give your contact person is provided in the US Power Squadron’s float plan; anyone can download and use this form

They state, “Complete this form before boating and leave it with a reliable person who can be depended upon to notify the Coast Guard or other rescue organization in case you do not return as scheduled. A word of caution: In case you are delayed and it is not an emergency, inform those with your float plan of your delay in order to avoid an unnecessary search!”

Test Your Devices

Most devices can and should be be tested before heading offshore. Be sure to follow the correct protocols in order to prevent false alerts; most have a non-transmit testing mode. Never test devices with a real emergency message.

If an alert is transmitted by accident, immediately contact the device’s emergency response point of contact and stop the rescue process. An accidental emergency transmission causes deployment of rescue assets, a very expensive activity that can inv

Also, many devices have inspection dates; past the date specified, there is no guarantee the device will operate correctly.

So, How Do They Work?

The EPIRB sends a distress call with GPS location via satellite link to government agencies. These systems cover the globe, with some areas having stronger signals than others. The EPIRB then continues to send a secondary homing signal so that nearby large ships with specialized receiving systems can proceed to the distressed vessel’s location. There are new EPIRBS combined with AIS-SART, which sends both the EPIRB signals, but also transmit higher power AIS alarms to all vessels in transmission reach. This means not only commercial ships who can home in on EPRIB signals, but ALL near by vessels equipped with AIS receivers. It expands the numbers of vessels who can respond.

The EPIRB signal received by satellite is sent to a processing center, sometimes with a person in the loop, to verify the emergency. It is the verification step that makes your registration so important agencies need to know this is a valid emergency. The center then determines the location of distress and sends out notification to the country responsible for the area. It is the responsibility of that country’s rescue coordination center to perform search and rescue efforts. The newer PLBs perform in the same way, however, they have a much more limited range and battery life. Again, registration is critical.

A Cautionary Tale

A solo sailor who was lost on passage in the Western Caribbean earlier this year had two EPIRBs aboard. One was registered in the owner’s country and was valid. The second was an older EPIRB borrowed from another vessel with a different MMSI number and a different country registration. It had been dropped from the databases.

When a distress message was received from the registered EPIRB, which had been deployed manually and was floating in the water, boats were deployed to its homing signal. The floating device was picked up but neither the yacht nor its skipper were seen.

Many hours later and in a different location, the older EPIRB was activated, but this distress signal was not recognized as the device was not in any registry; it was considered an error. (The second EPIRB’s identity was only verified by its former vessel’s MMSI number/name after a secondary search was started weeks after the yacht was reported lost.)

It is not known why the single hander manually deployed two EPIRBs at locations close to a hundred miles apart. The yacht and its skipper are still considered lost at sea several months later.

In addition, the vessel did have a satellite locator device (a satellite phone). A search afterwards of the INMARSAT number with service providers indicated the phone system was not in service. Its emergency SOS capability still could have been used, but was not. If the SOS system had been switched on and transmitting to satellites (in service or not) the vessel could have been traced. Unfortunately, an opportunity to rescue this sailor may have been lost.

A few simple steps to make sure emergency notification devices do their job can make all the difference in an emergency at sea. Agencies stand by to attempt rescues. It’s up to us to make sure the information acted on when an emergency request is received is correct.

This article was published In the Seven Seas Cruising Association, Cruisers’ Bulletin February 20, 2020 and was written by Commodore Joan Conover.