On blue water yachts, the EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) is gaining ground in recent years, and there is hardly a ship that sails without such a beacon. Originally the distress signal comes from commercial shipping and aviation.
If the alarm is triggered anywhere in the world at the beacon, the radio transmitter sends out a distress signal, which is assigned to the ship and with the help of which the damaged yacht or person can be located. The coordination will then be carried out by a responsible MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Center).
In 2016, more than 2,000 people were rescued by the system, including about 1,000 from the maritime sector, and there were more than 850 rescue missions. EPIRBs communicate via the so-called COSPAS / SARSAT system, to which more than 200 countries are connected. Thus, according to my knowledge, there is no better rescue signal for professional and reliable rescue coordination.
For sailors who charter a lot, there are also the so-called PLBs (Personal Locator Beacon). A PLB sends out a signal at the same emergency frequency as the EPIRB. Alternatively, unlike the EPIRB, the PLB can alternatively be registered to one person. However, the PLB is not the subject of this article.
Trigger the EPIRB
There are usually two ways to trigger the EPIRB manually or automatically by water contact. The manual release usually requires a fuse to be removed and then a button pressed for several seconds. This additional security step prevents inadvertent triggering of the EPIRB.
Alternatively, the EPIRB can also be provided with a water pressure release housing. If, for example, the ship sinks so fast that the emergency beacon cannot be triggered manually in time, the EPIRB is automatically “flung” out of the housing at a certain depth. The EPIRB then rises fully automatically to the surface and begins by the water contact with the transmission of the emergency signal. Of course, it is of fundamental importance that the EPIRB can then swim freely. If the EPIRB is equipped with a water pressure actuator housing, it makes no sense to mount it in the cabin – then it would sink in an emergency with the ship.
In the leisure area, when using the housing with water pressure release, make sure that the EPIRB is still accessible for manual release at all times so that it can be triggered manually in other threatening cases. For example serious injuries, fire on board, or piracy.
Caution: If an EPIRB has been triggered by water contact, it is important that it remains in contact with the water continuously. Otherwise, it will shut off.
The EPIRB has contacts through which it can determine whether the water contact exists. Conversely, if the EPIRB was triggered, for example, when the ship was sinking and brought into the life raft after entering the life raft, it stops there after a while to send the distress signal when the contacts are no longer in contact with water. In this case, the alarm would have to be triggered manually as well. Alternatively, almost all EPIRBs come with a small leash. With this leash, they can be tied to the liferaft and remain in the water.
It is also important to know that some manufacturers have to remove the antenna before triggering the EPIRB. I think this is prone to error since in an emergency sometimes hectic conditions prevail and then someone has to think of it. I would prefer an EPIRB here, which is immediately ready for use – without removing the antenna.
Position determination and transmission of the emergency signal
The manufacturer provides each EPIRB with its GPS receiver. Only in commercial shipping, there are still obsolete EPIRBs without GPS, where the position is determined using a satellite-bearing (Doppler method). This method is significantly less accurate in positioning and not recommended.
Once triggered, the EPIRB will determine its position based on the GPS signal, and once it has detected it, it will start transmitting it along with the emergency call. The emergency signal is transmitted on the 406 MHz frequency and received by satellites of the COSPAS / SARSAT system. In the further course, the EPIRB sends out an update of the position at regular intervals. Continuous transmission of the position does not make sense, as this would seriously affect the life of the battery. This position broadcast is by default mandatory for all EPIRBs for at least 48 hours.
Depending on where the EPIRB is located on Earth, the signal will either be processed immediately, or it will be picked up later. In other words: Whoever triggers an EPIRB, depending on the location, can not expect that the emergency call will be heard at the same moment.
If the EPIRB is located in an area that is satellite-only covered by orbiting satellites, the trip may take up to four hours if the satellite has just disappeared beyond the horizon and must first orbit the earth until it passes by again. On the other hand, if the EPIRB is in an area with geostationary coverage, the distress signal will be detected immediately, for example on the Baltic Sea.
Under the heading MEOSAR, the satellites of the GPS, GLONASS and GALILEO systems are currently equipped with additional modules to process the 406 MHz distress signal. Thus, the coverage and transmission speed increases again considerably.
The EPIRB standard also includes a so-called homing signal. This is a beacon signal emitted by a triggered EPIRB at 121.5 MHz. With a special receiver, this signal can be read and the position of the EPIRB can be determined. Such receivers are usually installed on SAR emergency vehicles – such as rescue helicopters or lifeboats.
Another added benefit arises when the EPIRB is also equipped with an AIS transmitter. In this case, the emergency signal is also displayed directly on AIS receivers in range. In commercial shipping, an AIS receiver is obligatory and also more and more widespread in leisure navigation. However, with the FastFind G8 AIS, McMurdo is currently the only manufacturer to additionally equip an EPIRB with an AIS emergency signal.
Registration of the EPIRB
The EPIRB must be registered with the Federal Network Agency and entered in the frequency allocation certificate for the vessel. In doing so, the MMSI is deposited, with which each EPIRB is encoded as part of the registration process. MMSI stands for Maritime Mobile Service Identity and is a globally unique number assigned to each maritime station.
Depending on the country in which the MMSI is registered, the emergency call is received at another control center. For all EPIRBs registered in Germany with the Federal Network Agency, whose MMSI begins with the numbers 211, the emergency call is received at the Bundeswehr SAR control center in Münster – also known as the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC). All maritime emergency calls are usually forwarded from there to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) in Bremen of the German Society for Rescue of Shipwrecked Persons (DGzRS) and coordinated from there.
As part of the registration with the Federal Network Agency, a contact person with a telephone number who is to be contacted in case of distress is usually deposited. This should logically be a person who does not sail. Otherwise, she would not be contactable?
Usually, this person receives a call relatively quickly after the emergency call is received to request further information. This implies, conversely, that such a person is ideally provided with enough information about the crew onboard and the shipping area before departure, as this can greatly facilitate the rescue.
Here’s an example: A yacht known to me has lost its rig on the Bay of Biscay. The two sailors aboard were too far from the shore to drive to the nearest port and fired the EPIRB for help. After receiving the emergency call, the parents of the yachtsmen were called by the MRCC, informed of the distress, and were asked how many people are on board and if there was more information.
Take back an EPIRB false alarm
An inadvertently triggered alarm or an out-of-date alarm can be ended or canceled by switching off the EPIRB. However, this does not mean that the rescue measures initiated are stopped. The EPIRB just stops sending out the distress call and the position. It is therefore imperative to also notify an RCC or MRCC of the end of the emergency or the false alarm.
This procedure makes sense. For example, if the ship were to burn, the EPIRB was triggered, and then accidentally left behind on the ship and burned, the EPIRB would stop sending. The distress would still exist. Therefore, only the manual return in contact with an MRCC or the RCC is relevant.
Maintenance / battery life
For the EPIRB to function reliably in an emergency, it must be serviced regularly by a specialist garage and the battery replaced. In particular, blue-water sailors should think before the trip about were on the itinerary for their EPIRB maintenance exists. An EPIRB is not an item that can be sent straight from one country to the next by courier in an uncomplicated way. It is better to rely on a brand EPIRB with a worldwide network of accredited service/maintenance centers.
It is also helpful to do a self-test before long sea stretches to make sure the beacon is working properly. However, the test should not be done too often as it reduces battery life.
While EPIRBs used to have to be serviced every two years, battery life has now improved significantly and battery life of five years is standard today. There are even EPIRBs with a battery that lasts ten years. What’s more, there are also EPIRBs where owners can change the battery themselves.
All this protects the onboard cashier immensely since especially with older EPIRBs the maintenance amounts to well and gladly times half of the purchase price.
An EPIRB is an important lifeline and should not be missing on any long-distance yacht. However, every crewmember should know how to operate the EPIRB. An introduction to the EPIRB should, therefore, be a mandatory part of every letter. This includes the indication that an EPIRB is not a toy, but a severe means of rescue – especially if children are on board.
Who triggers an emergency EPIRB signal, starts the rescue chain binding. An emergency call triggered via the EPIRB is mandatory worldwide and leads to extensive help measures to save lives! Whether it be that freighters or cruise ships are diverted, helicopters make their way or sea rescue vessels run out.
And it is precisely this commitment that is a blessing, as it enables us (slow) sailors in every corner of the earth, to call attention to us in case of emergency and to receive vital help.