With Distress Beacons, Does Size Matter?

5 Factors to Consider When You Review Your Vessels Critical Safety Equipment:

The ultimate goal of the global 406MHz Cospas Sarsat search and rescue system is to provide an effective tool to detect and respond to calls for help. From fishermen and workboats, to yacht owners and container vessels, the starting point; since Cospas’s inception in 1981; has been the distress beacon or Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) to give it it’s technical name.

A legally required device for commercial shipping under the IMO’s SOLAS safety regulations, both national and international legislation have been a consistent driver in both the development and adoption of life saving devices. But distress beacon innovation has out-paced mandated requirements and is playing catch up, with Canada and Australia introducing mandates to require fishing vessels to upgrade to automatically deployed EPIRBs and the USA 2020 mandate to remove non GNSS (GPS / Galileo) EPIRBs.

As the sophistication and accuracy of search and rescue distress beacons have undergone a revolution in the last two years, what technology and features should a prospective EPIRB customer be looking for? And is size one of them?

  1. SmartFind G8 AIS BracketBrand Reputation: A good starting point in any purchase discussion on life saving products. The R&D development and international approval requirements for new EPIRBs requires multi-million pound investment, so chances are if you’ve been on a boat you have seen the main reputable brands. In this regard size does matter, the life cycle of a distress beacon includes the service support and accessories, such as batteries, for seven years after the product is no longer in manufacture. So you want a brand you can trust and that has a global service network of highly trained service engineers and proven longevity.
  2. Regulatory Compliance: Understanding and reflecting changes in international safety standards has driven maritime safety innovation for half a century. From 406 MHz based beacons, the addition of GNSS and 2022s SOLAS inclusion of internal AIS in EPIRBs, including new and pending legislation is key to future proofing your purchase. The leading manufacturers are aware of the technology and legislation on the horizon and it will be reflected in their product roadmap of existing or imminent product releases. For the uninitiated, a review of the leading brand’s websites will highlight key technology, such as Meosar, GNSS, Galileo, Multi-Constellation Receivers and Internal AIS, with their availability and advantages. For commercial ship owners understanding legislation drivers will best steer a course towards devices with the longest operational life.
  3. User Friendly: This can be interpreted in a few ways and size can be a factor. Some manufactures focus on a compact size to make transporting distress beacons easier, they believe being small means you are more likely to have it near you in an emergency. But a marine environment is notoriously harsh on products and the people trying to use them. A compact EPIRB that may have seemed convenient in the chandlers, may prove cumbersome in all weather gloves or with water numbed hands. Distress beacons deployed on commercial vessels often look larger or more industrial, but this reflects years of research on drop and impact resistance, temperature extremes and typical use scenarios, important considerations for a piece of life saving electronics that could be on board for a decade or more. One of the most user friendly features to consider is how to avoid accidental activation, by far the most common global reason for beacon signals to be detected and a major impact and risk for search and rescue crews. This can be as simple as a button being pressed while carried in a ditch bag or being dropped into water when going onboard. Features to look out for include, covers on the power button and water activation switches to avoid the most common hazards, also look out for how the EPIRB can be removed from its’ wall mounting and hands free transport features.
  4. Accelerated Rescue Innovation: An area of search and rescue that has undergone a silent revolution in the previous two years, but one that often makes someone buying an EPIRB feel like they requires a PHD in satellite communications to properly comprehend. Basically, the earth and space foundations of the global 406MHz based search and rescue system (Cospas Sarsat) have been given an upgrade called MEOSAR, which is compatible with existing as well as new beacons. A secondary benefit of this upgrade has been the deployment of a new, highly accurate GNSS signal, working along-side GPS, called #Galileo. By combining the 406MHz detection speed of MEOSAR to identify someone in distress and the additional global coverage and location accuracy of Galileo, the average time required by search and rescue to recognise and locate a cry for help has dropped from a hour and a half to typically under 10 minutes. Accelerated location detection is key to reduced time in the water and ultimately saving lives. So at its simplest, make sure your beacon has Galileo and you will benefit from the best innovation available.
  5. Power: Power can be subjective in describing beacons. It has been used to cover the number of frequencies the beacon transmits, or the number of GPS channels it receivers. That concept now needs to include the number of GNSS receivers it includes. With the development of Meosar the true power is the dedicated, highly penetrating 406 MHz signal, which has nearly 40 years of life saving references under its belt. An obviously life-saving power capability is the EPIRB’s guaranteed minimum 48h activation time, which can’t be replicated with iridium or mobile technology. That power reserve typically comes with the double edged sword of a ten year shelf life, giving EPIRB owners extensive product life, but increasing the chances the unit will be stowed and forgotten. When buying an EPIRB, regardless of battery life, an owner should plan to service after 5 years and make sure the beacon still conforms to both legislative requirements and the best technology available. The power of an EPIRB is ultimately to let professional search and rescue staff know you need help in the fast time possible.

For the majority of people who work and play on or near the water, an #EPIRB will only ever be the beacon in the ditch bag or connected to the wall. For those unfortunate enough to have to use one in earnest your EPIRB is the most important device onboard. Allowing you to cry for help and your rescuers to locate and recover you. In this regard size does matter. When you invest in safety technology that may well be on board for a decade, bigger is better, EPIRBs with all the latest technology, frequencies, power and resilience, so when you press the red button you can trust help is on its way, fast.

Innovation Saves Lives