Individual rescue beacons prove worth but aren't required yet

It used to be that when a mariner went overboard, a signal flare was his best chance of alerting rescuers to his location. New technological advancements have made it possible for most small vessels and individuals to carry transmitters like emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs), personal locator beacons (PLBs) and similar devices that significantly increase their chances of survival.

But legislation hasn't quite caught up with the advances. The U.S. Coast Guard has yet to require transmitters for individual use by mariners, though there have long been rumors such legislation is in the works.

McMurdo's Smartfind S10 transmitter can interface with onboard systems to aid vessel crews in locating a person overboard. (Courtesy McMurdo Ltd.)

Talbot Pratt, manager of business development for lifesaving technology supplier Datrex Inc., said mandating personal usage would be a good thing for both the maritime and EPIRB industries. "Sure, they'd sell more of them, but attaching a homing beacon on someone who ends up in the water is always going to save lives, so of course that's a good thing," he said.

So why the delay? "We're working with legislative bodies that are very slow," Pratt said. "There's a lot of new technology coming out. There are probably 10 very different solutions right now, and they're trying to figure out which ones we're going to run with. At least until that happens, I don't think there's going to be any legislation."

EPIRBs for vessels have been around a long time, and have led to the rescue of more than 30,000 people worldwide since 1982, when the international Cospas-Sarsat network of low-Earth-orbiting satellites began tracking them. Newer units include integrated GPS systems that provide faster, more accurate position information, and the most recent models are small and affordable enough to be carried or worn by individuals, not just vessels.

The U.S. Coast Guard requires that most commercial vessels carry an EPIRB that transmits a coded message on the 406 MHz distress frequency once it's been activated. It also maintains recommended standards for other aspects of EPIRB usage, including that they must float free and upright, transmit for at least 48 hours and incorporate strobe lights for visibility. Many are deployed automatically when submerged.

Built to lesser specifications, PLBs are similar in function to EPIRBs, but cost less. Their small size and affordability — they're the size of a cell phone, and can cost as little as $300 — make them increasingly popular for non-maritime use by wilderness campers, small-plane pilots, kayakers and hikers.

"When PLBs came out, they couldn't make them fast enough, and they began making them smaller and smaller," Pratt said. "People were buying them instead of EPIRBs. But that's not what they were designed for."

Because they're not required to float, are always deployed manually and must transmit for a minimum of just 24 hours, PLBs don't meet the same standards as EPIRBs. But some manufacturers are now building them to meet most of the same requirements as EPIRBs, and nearly all have integrated GPS.

A new breed of system is beginning to hit the overseas market — not strictly either EPIRB or PLB, but incorporating features of both. The personal-use Smartfind S10 transmitter made by U.K.-based McMurdo sends alert messages, GPS information and a unique identification when activated. The alerts can be viewed using a standard ship AIS, companion plotter or ECDIS screen. Integrating the devices with onboard systems allows a vessel's crew to take advantage of existing navigation technology for rescues.

"You're literally talking about using a simple receiver that's already on a lot of vessels, and it ties right into the vessel's navigation system," Pratt said. "It's simple."

A similar system, SafeLink, from French manufacturer Kannad, is triggered automatically when submerged. Like the Smartfind S10, it sells for around $350, but so far, neither is approved for use in the United States. The Federal Communications Commission is reviewing them.

"Right now, even in England, they're only available to people who want to have them for their own use. They don't meet any standards yet," said George Lariviere, vice president of Maine-based WhiffleTech Marine Safety.

Man-overboard systems, or MOBs, are another lifesaving technology that alerts the bridge of a vessel when a crewmember falls overboard.

"The Coast Guard is really pushing for (the industry) to bring out MOBs," said Lariviere. "A lot of people say the PLB can be used as an MOB, but the signal has to go through the satellite system and come down and be distributed to the Coast Guard by NOAA. That can be 45 minutes or more very easily before they even launch. If you have an MOB, it alerts your own vessel that someone is in danger or in trouble, and as a fallback you might use a PLB."

Mobilarm's Crewsafe creates a monitoring network on a vessel, oil rig or loading wharf that can be integrated with navigation systems and GPS to automatically log a waypoint for a man-overboard situation.

Virginia-based BriarTek's ORCA system transmitter signals all ORCA receivers within range in the event of a submersion, and lights up an integrated strobe light for visibility. Some models broadcast location and identification information that can be tracked using radio direction finders.

"The thing I like about them is, the Coast Guard helicopter can supposedly pick the thing up from 50 to 60 miles out," said Capt. Terry Jednaszewski of Florida's Tampa Bay Pilots Association, which uses the ORCA system.

Though the Coast Guard does not yet require individual mariners to carry locators, the maritime industry is increasingly investing in the technology, which costs less than lost lives. Fleet owners are beginning to recognize it, and as the industry responds with technological advances, more mariners can afford to purchase and carry their own transmitters.

"There's always been a need," Pratt said. "We're just getting to the point now where technology can offer a product that's inexpensive enough."

Lariviere said he doesn't believe their use will be mandated, though not because they're not useful. "I understand why it would be a good idea," he said, "but we can't even get the public at large to accept the requirement that personal aircraft has to have a (406 MHz EPIRB). I don't see how you'll do it for a personal transmitter for individual mariners."

By Professional Mariner Staff