EPIRBs with GPS can result in quicker response times and more lives saved

The U.S. Coast Guard is encouraging the use of GPS-enhanced emergency position indicting radio beacon (EPIRB) units.

Traditional EPIRBs rely on satellite Doppler shift to identify the location of the device. In a Marine Safety Advisory issued in May, the Coast Guard said the GPS units normally save 30 to 100 minutes in obtaining an accurate location.

"Several recent casualty investigations have revealed that EPIRB owners are largely unaware that rescue efforts are significantly improved and your vessel's location transmitted more quickly and accurately when distress signals are initiated by GPS-enhanced EPIRBs," the advisory stated.

"This is a significant amount of time and may mean the difference between life or death in cold water situations where the survival rate is decreased as each minute passes," it said.

The new units, which are voluntary at this point, provide a location accurate within 100 meters in 50 to 120 seconds. By directing rescuers to a more exact location, they allow "helicopter flight time to be devoted to rescue operations rather than conducting search operations," the Coast Guard wrote.

An example of the effectiveness of the GPS EPIRBs was the 2008 sinking of Alaska Ranger in the Bering Sea 120 miles west of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, with 47 people on board. The vessel's Category I EPIRB did not have the GPS feature, but a personal EPIRB carried by a fisheries observer on board did. It took only 11 minutes to identify that EPIRB's location.

Since May 2008, the Commercial Fishing Safety Advisory Committee has recommended that all new EPIRBs installed on commercial fishing vessels include an integral GPS receiver. In a recent Marine Accident Brief on the sinking of the commercial fishing vessel Lady Mary, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended to the Federal Communications Commission that for commercial vessels required to carry 406-MHz EPIRBs, those EPIRBs should be required to broadcast vessel position data.

The Coast Guard strongly urges vessel owners to replace existing EPIRBs with GPS-enhanced devices.

That recommendation was seconded by Capt. David B. Moskoff, assistant academic dean for support programs and a professor in the Marine Transportation Department at the United States Merchant Marine Academy. He said the additional $300 to $400 cost to get GPS capability is well worth it.

"For sailors, fishermen and all who work on the water, winding up in the water can mean certain death measured in hours or even minutes," he said. "If a GPIRB (GPS EPIRB) is carried, the rescuers are immediately provided the exact location which, within the first hour or two, may make all the difference."

By Professional Mariner Staff