Do I Need an EPIRB?

An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) is a device designed to save your life when all else has failed. 

Having an EPIRB on board not only increases your chances of survival, but regulations in certain situations also require it. But do you need an EPIRB, and if so, which type is best for your needs?

They come in various types with different capabilities, such as automatic activation, distress signaling for a minimum of 48 hours, and robust, watertight designs. Some are even equipped with AIS, which takes the search part out of the rescue. 

It’s essential to understand how EPIRBs work and the differences between the various types available to decide if you need one and which type would suit your situation best. 

Key Takeaways

  • EPIRBs are lifesaving devices that help locate and rescue distressed mariners.
  • Understanding the types, their features, and their role in SAR operations is crucial for selecting the right one.
  • Complying with regulations and guidelines will ensure your safety and proper functioning of the EPIRB in case of emergencies.

Regulations and Guidelines

Important Safety Measures

The FCC mandates the proper registration of a 406 MHz satellite EPIRB. By registering, you provide valuable information to the U.S. Coast Guard and rescue teams in case of an emergency. Depending on your vessel’s size and area of operation, different regulations may apply.

For example, each vessel operating on the high seas or beyond three miles from the Great Lakes coastline must have an FCC Type Accepted Category 1, 406 MHz EPIRB that is installed to float free and activate automatically. 

Additionally, you can refer to the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations for specific requirements regarding EPIRB installation and maintenance.

Preventing False Alarms

To avoid unnecessary search and rescue missions, knowing the guidelines and precautions surrounding EPIRB usage is essential. Proper handling, maintenance, and storage of your EPIRB can help reduce the chances of accidental activation.

When your vessel is underway, the EPIRB must be stowed in its float-free bracket with the controls set for automatic activation so that it will float free if the vessel sinks.

Search and Rescue Operations

Search and Rescue (SAR) operations are critical in responding to life-threatening situations at sea. They involve collaborating with various rescue teams and organizations working together to locate and assist mariners in distress. 

A key component of SAR operations is the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC), which serves as a central hub for coordinating the response efforts of SAR teams.

EPIRBs play a significant role in search and rescue services. When activated, they send a distress signal to the satellite-based SAR network, providing your exact location and notifying the RCC. 

The RCC then activates the necessary search and rescue forces to ensure an immediate response to your situation.

For boat owners and sailors, having one onboard is crucial. EPIRBs have a proven track record of saving lives by alerting SAR organizations and providing accurate location information.

Types of EPIRBs

Category I EPIRBs (Automatic)

Category I EPIRBs are designed to be float-free, automatically activating upon hitting the water. These beacons operate on 406 MHz and 121.5 MHz frequencies, allowing for worldwide satellite detection and Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) recognition. 

When choosing a Cat I EPIRB, you can feel confident that it will activate automatically the moment it comes into contact with water, allowing rescuers to pinpoint your exact location swiftly.

Some also come with built-in GPS (or GPS EPIRB). This feature enhances location accuracy and reduces the time it takes for rescue teams to reach you.

Category II EPIRBs (Manual)

While Category II EPIRBs function similarly to Category I devices, their activation method shows a notable difference. 

These beacons must be activated manually, but some models are also water-activated. Operating on the same 406 MHz and 121.5 MHz frequencies, Category II EPIRBs are detectable by satellites worldwide and recognized by GMDSS.

While opting for a Category II EPIRB requires you to activate the distress signal manually, it still delivers a reliable way for rescue teams to locate and assist you during emergencies.

Comparison Between EPIRBs and PLBs

EPIRBs, designed for maritime use, float freely when activated on registered vessels. They activate manually or automatically upon water immersion, with a longer battery life (up to 48 hours) than PLBs. Transmitting signals to Cospas-Sarsat satellites they ensure global distress signal coverage.

PLBs, smaller and portable, work on both land and water. They’re popular among outdoor enthusiasts like hikers, kayakers, and mountaineers. Unlike EPIRBs, PLBs require manual activation and offer a shorter 24-hour battery life but still transmit to the global Cospas-Sarsat satellite system for worldwide emergency coverage.

In choosing between an EPIRB and a PLB, you must consider your specific needs and the situations in which you may need a safety beacon. 

Maritime activities, such as sailing and boating, warrant using an EPIRB, whereas land-based or personal watercraft adventures are better suited to a PLB.

Renting Versus Owning an EPIRB

Renting an EPIRB is an excellent option if you infrequently venture offshore or partake in activities that warrant their use. Rentals allow you to access reliable, updated equipment without worrying about maintenance or battery replacement costs. 

For example, the BoatUS Foundation offers a daily, weekly, and monthly rental program, making it an affordable choice for short-term trips or occasional use.

Owning an EPIRB is ideal if you frequently navigate in remote locations or undertake ocean voyages. When you own an EPIRB, you can register it with your specific information, allowing for quicker identification during emergencies.

Owning the device also means you have it readily available and can keep it in good working order.

Renting EPIRBOwning EPIRB
Frequency of UseMore cost-effective for infrequent or seasonal use.Better suited for frequent or regular use, where the long-term costs are justified.
CostTypically includes maintenance, battery replacement, and registration fees in the rental price.Owning incurs additional charges for maintenance, battery replacement, and registration fees.
RegistrationOften included as part of the rental process.Requires separate registration process.

I’m the founder and chief editor here at Sailing Savvy. I spent a decade working as a professional mariner and currently, I mix those experiences with digital publishing. Welcome, and I hope that we can be the hub you need for safe passage.