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How to Select an EPIRB: Emergency Radio Beacon

By Todd Vorenkamp
When disaster strikes, before you get into the water wearing your personal flotation device and survival suit, you definitely want to let the Coast Guard know where you are. In this primer, we will be discussing the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). The EPIRB is a cornerstone of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) and has been credited with contributing to the saving of over 22,000 people worldwide since the program’s inception.

The EPRIB, put simply, sends out an electronic distress signal when it is activated. Satellites in geosynchronous orbits around the Earth receive the EPIRB signal and transmit the information to search and rescue officials.

There are several types of EPIRBS on the market that have different features and functions.

Beware of buying an older beacon on the used market! In 2009, the Coast Guard stopped monitoring the radio signals transmitted by older EPIRBS (121.5 MHz/243.0 MHz FM) and now only detects the signals broadcast by the 406 MHz beacons. If you have an older beacon on your vessel, you need to purchase a new 406 MHz beacon now and be sure you properly dispose of the older beacon.

The shift to 406 MHz beacon monitoring only was done in response to a need to reduce the amount of false alarms that the search and rescue organizations were getting launched on. The advantages of the digital 406 MHz signal are the capability (with certain models of EPIRBs) to embed a GPS position in the distress signal and also provide a user-specific digital identification to the rescue forces so long as the EPIRB was registered.

The satellites were orbited starting in 1979 as part of an international program known as COSPAS-SARSAT sponsored by Canada, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States.

There are three primary beacons in the COSPAS-SARSAT system; maritime EPIRBS; Emergency Location Transmitters (ELT), used in aircraft and Personal Locator Beacons and (PLB) for personal use by hikers and other folks that are away from normal emergency services.

There are several categories of 406 MHz beacons:

Category I beacons are capable of automatic activation and release in the event of water submersion.

Category II beacons are manually activated. It does not require too much thought for one to imagine a scenario where the extra cost of a Category I beacon might mean the difference between a successful transmission of an emergency signal and vanishing without a trace.

The other thing you MUST do when you purchase a new EPIRB is: REGISTER IT! The digital 406 MHz signal contains information on your vessel and the owner. When the Coast Guard receives a distress signal from a registered 406 MHz beacon, they not only start to deploy rescue assets immediately, but they will usually call the phone number associated with the beacon’s registration code.

More often than not, the Coast Guard finds that there was no distress and the EPIRB was accidently activated for some reason or another.

If your beacon goes off accidentally and you receive this phone call, do not fret or brace for a stern lecture. The Coast Guard will be friendly and is just calling to make sure that all is well on board your vessel.

As you all know, the EPIRB is not an inexpensive piece of hardware for your boat. I recommend purchasing the best model that you can afford. Like all safety gear, if things go horribly wrong and you need to use it, you do not want to be left thinking that if you had spent a few more bucks here and there you might be in a better spot than you are when things are not so good.

The two main things to take away from this article are: 1) Ensure that you have a fully functioning and current 406 MHz EPRIB on your vessel if you are required to carry an EPIRB.

2) REGISTER that beacon as soon as you get it so that when your beacon is activated, search and rescue forces are launching to assist you with a good amount of information that can assist them in finding you.

Thanks again and be safe out on the water!

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Todd Vorenkamp is a 1996 graduate of the US Merchant Marine Academy has served as a naval aviator flying search and rescue missions in four different helicopters. He maintains an unlimited tonnage merchant marine license and owns a sailboat.

[Editor's Note: Please share with our readers what you know that will enhance the experience of fishing or boating in Northern California or Southern Oregon waters. What have you learned? Your expertise, no matter where you fish (fresh or saltwater) or what species you target, could be invaluable to other anglers. What not to do is just as important as what to do. Please send your strategies, ideas, tips, techniques and personal experiences to Please include your name and hometown.]

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