NTSB renews call for personal locator beacons

(WASHINGTON) — Two recent marine casualties — involving the liftboat SEACOR Power and the fishing vessel Emmy Rose — highlight the critical safety importance of providing personal locator beacons (PLBs) to mariners to aid in search-and-rescue operations in a variety of conditions — a recommendation the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been making for more than five years.

​​​​​​On April 13, 2021, the U.S.-flagged SEACOR Power capsized off the coast of Port Fourchon, La., in a severe thunderstorm. Six personnel were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard and good Samaritan vessels, and the bodies of six fatally injured personnel were recovered. Seven personnel were never found and are presumed dead. None of the six survivors rescued had PLBs or satellite emergency notification devices (SENDs), nor did they know of anyone else on board who did.

The liftboat SEACOR Power after capsizing on April 13, 2021. U.S. Coast Guard photo

On Nov. 23, 2020, the Coast Guard received a distress signal about 27 miles from Provincetown, Mass., from the emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) registered to Emmy Rose, an 82-foot-long commercial fishing vessel with four crewmembers aboard. Coast Guard personnel recovered the EPIRB, but none of the crewmembers were located and are now presumed dead.

The investigation showed that if any crewmembers had been able to evacuate the vessel after it capsized, they would have been able to survive up to 22.5 hours in the water with an immersion suit. It is unlikely that the crew had PLBs; however, had they been able to activate them and abandon the vessel, search-and-rescue crews would have had continuously updated and correct coordinates of individual crewmembers’ locations, thus enhancing their chances of survival.

As a result of these investigations, the NTSB reiterated a recommendation issued in 2017 (M-17-45) to the Coast Guard to require all personnel employed on vessels in coastal, Great Lakes and ocean service be provided with a PLB. The agency also recommended the Offshore Marine Service Association notify members of PLB availability and value.

The first time the NTSB recommended the Coast Guard require PLBs was following the 2015 sinking of the cargo vessel El Faro in which all 33 crewmembers perished.

PLBs are personal electronic devices that are used during emergencies. Although they are not part of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, they operate like EPIRBs, transmitting to the search-and-rescue satellite-aided tracking system on 406 MHz. Unlike EPIRBs, PLBs must be manually activated.

PLBs and SENDs are becoming more commonly used among mariners, but more mariners need to be provided and have available these life-saving devices. The Coast Guard should require them, as per the NTSB’s recommendation, but marine operations of all types shouldn’t wait to equip their personnel with these vital life-saving devices.

Advancements in technology have resulted in affordable PLBs with GPS location functionality. These devices are meant to be carried by individuals and can provide search-and-rescue operations with an accurate, continuously updated location of each person carrying a PLB. PLBs can reduce or eliminate search-and-rescue errors by providing multiple current GPS coordinates of survivors to searchers. PLBs can result in the faster location and rescue of survivors of marine casualties.

For any PLB, mariners should read the manufacturer’s instructions and register the device with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) prior to use.

For more information on the NTSB’s marine casualty investigations, visit its Office of Marine Safety investigative reports webpage.

Read the NTSB’s marine safety alert, “Mariners: Improve Your Chances of Survival When Abandoning Ship.”

Check out these resources on PLB use from NOAA and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC):

Frequently asked questions/NOAA
U.S. beacon registration/NOAA
Personal locator beacons/FCC

– National Transportation Safety Board

By Rich Miller