What Is An EPIRB or Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon?
Posted on October 19, 2022
Safe boating is everyone’s responsibility, and there is technology available to commercial and recreational boaters called an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon or EPIRB to alert Search and Rescue teams of your exact location, should the unthinkable ever happen. Learn everything you need to know about EPIRBs and how they take the Search out of Search and Rescue.
What Does EPIRB Stand For?
EPIRB Stands for Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon. You may also hear an EPIRB referred to as a GPIRB, this stands for an EPIRB that has an internal GNSS/GPS receiver to pinpoint your location faster.
What Is An EPIRB?
An EPIRB or Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon is a distress beacon for boaters that when activated alerts a worldwide Search and Rescue (SAR) network designed to send rescuers to your exact location quickly.
How Do EPIRBs work?
EPIRBs transmit a digital 406 MHz distress signal that contains a unique 15-digit identification number to the Cospas-Sarsat Satellite System.
Search and Rescue forces then pull up your beacon registration (also free, yet mandatory for all EPIRB owners) which tells them who the beacon belongs to as well as provides additional emergency contact information.
EPIRBs provide Search and Rescue forces with your location either via GPS data or via triangulation calculations from the satellites. This positional data is provided to the Rescue Coordination Center closest to your location. They in turn embark on your rescue mission and use the EPIRBs 121.5 MHz homing signal and strobe lights to ultimately pinpoint your location and bring you home safely.
For more information on how an EPIRB, Personal Locator Beacon, or Emergency Locator Transmitter rescues work, check out our article here.
Key Point: The Cospas – Sarsat Satellite System
The Cospas – Sarsat Satellite System is an international satellite radiolocation system to support search and rescue operations for aviators, mariners, and land travelers in distress.
The Cospas – Sarsat Satellite System is supported by local governments so there are no subscription fees.
How To Use An EPIRB Beacon in Case of Emergency?
EPIRBs can be deployed manually or automatically depending on the bracket category and situation.
An automatic Float Free Category 1 bracket is designed to release an EPIRB when the Hydrostatic Release Unit (HRU) in the bracket is submerged in water to a depth of 4 to 14 feet (1.5 – 4 meters).
The regulation specifies a range of depth for deployment to allow for different water temperatures which will affect the release depth. The Hydrostatic Release Unit needs to be replaced every two years. In an emergency, the EPIRB will release from its bracket, float to the surface, and alert search and rescue that you need help fast.
EPIRBs in a Category 2 bracket need to be manually deployed and activated. They can be mounted above or below deck, in a location that is protected from outside influences (i.e. green water, traffic impacts, cabin doors, etc). Some people prefer to keep their beacon in a Ditchbag without the bracket which is ok if the bag is going to be in a dry spot on the boat.
Key Point: What Are The Different EPIRB Brackets?
- Category 1 Brackets automatically deploy EPIRB when a vessel sinks | Category 2 Brackets must be manually deployed from the bracket in an emergency
- Category 1 Brackets contain a Hydrostatic Release Unit (HRU) which needs to be replaced every 2 years
- Both category-type brackets have a built-in deactivation water sensor to prevent false alarms should the beacon get wet while in its bracket
- Both brackets allow for manual activation of the beacon while in the bracket as long as the beacon antenna is positioned to the sky
- Category 1 Brackets provide protection for the EPIRB from UV exposure
How To Register an EPIRB?
You are required to register your EPIRB with your local authority. Here are a few situations where you should file an EPIRB registration:
- If you purchase a new or used 406 MHz beacon, you must register it with your local government.
- If you change any information on your registration (such as phone number, address, bought a new boat, etc.) you must update the 406 MHz beacon registration.
- If you sell your 406 MHz beacons, notify your local government that you have done so, and make sure the buyer registers the beacon personally. Otherwise, you may be contacted by rescue authorities if it is activated!
How Often Do you Register Your EPIRB?
Registration renewal should take place every 2 years at a minimum. Most registrations can be easily updated online, in which case it is easy to add a float plan or additional trip details to your registration whenever you want.
Think of your EPIRB Registration as your own part of your rescue. The more detail you provide, and the more frequent you update your registration, you are giving the people coming to rescue you all the information they need to expedite your own rescue.
Do EPIRBs have Subscription Fees?
An EPIRB works on government-funded Search and Rescue Satellites (Cospas-Sarsat), and there are no required monthly or annual subscription fees to pay once you own an EPIRB (or Personal Locator Beacon). The fact is, EPIRBs save millions of taxpayer dollars each year because they take the search out of search and rescue.
Should you ever need to activate your beacon, rescue is free in most parts of the world.
How Often Do You Replace an EPIRB Battery?
Routine maintenance of your EPIRB beacon is key to having a successful survival plan, and EPIRB battery replacement is imperative to your survival. There is a battery expiration date on every beacon, and beacon batteries should be replaced every 5 years.
Personal Locator Beacon Vs. EPIRB
Personal locator beacons and EPRIBs serve the same purpose but have some key differences that differentiate the two.
- Personal Locator Beacons are smaller and are generally designed to be on the person or kept in a bag or kit.
- EPIRBs are larger and often mounted to a boat or marine vessel.
- EPIRBs have longer battery life and have a strobe light built-in
- PLBs have a shorter battery life, and may or may not have a strobe. Most ACR PLBs have a strobe light built in.
How do I know my EPIRB beacon is working?
To know if your EPIRB is functioning properly, you can perform a monthly self-test. If the test passes, the beacon is working. If the self-test does not pass, take/send the beacon in for service.
If you want to know that your beacon signal is reaching the satellite system and your signal is being received back down to earth please check out our advanced testing service called 406Link.com.
The Benefits of upgrading to a GPS EPIRB
An EPIRB with a GPS interface or internal GPS greatly reduces the search radius down to 100 meters (110 yards) but also significantly reduces the notification time from less than 1 hour down to 1 minute.
The Cospas-Sarsat satellite system uses 2 different satellites, the GEOSAR and LEOSAR.
The GEOSAR satellites are stationary over the equator, if your beacon has GPS coordinates, these satellites instantly alert Search and Rescue of your position in as little as 2-3 minutes.
The LEOSAR satellites are low earth orbiting and typically every hour one flies over your location. These satellites use Doppler shift principles to calculate your position to send to Search and Rescue. However, the notification time can be typically less than1 an hour while you wait for one to orbit over you.