Types Of EPIRB Simplified For Sailors

Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) are type of emergency beacon critical for maritime safety.

They come in mainly two types: Category I and Category II.

These beacons play a vital role in locating vessels in distress by sending signals to search and rescue satellites.

Types of EPIRB in the Marine Industry

EPIRBs are designed to signal distress and pinpoint locations to facilitate swift rescue operations. Your knowledge of EPIRBs helps ensure safety at sea, whether for commercial vessels or personal watercraft.

Category I EPIRB

Category I EPIRBs are designed for automatic activation. They deploy automatically when they come into contact with water, thanks to their hydrostatic release unit (HRU). These beacons are usually mounted on a vessel and will release themselves from their bracket when immersed in water, typically at depths of 1.5 to 4 meters. The advantage of Category I EPIRBs is their ability to begin transmitting a distress signal even if you are unable to activate them manually, which could be vital in situations where you become incapacitated.

Category II EPIRB

Category II EPIRBs require manual retrieval by a person. They can also be activated automatically if water activation is built in, but this is not mandatory. These EPIRBs are typically chosen for smaller boats or as a backup to a Category I unit, as they offer a more cost-effective option for mariners who are confident in their ability to activate the beacon during an emergency.

Differences Between Category I and II

Key differences between Category I and II EPIRBs include their activation methods. Category I beacons are equipped with a hydrostatic release, intended for automatic operation upon submersion, while Category II beacons rely predominantly on manual activation.

When picking an EPIRB for your boat, consider factors such as the size of your vessel, the typical number of crew, and the voyages you plan to undertake.

Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are smaller, portable emergency transmitters carried by individual persons. Unlike EPIRBs tailored for vessel use:

  • PLBs are registered to a person, not a vessel.
  • They can be attached to a sailing life jacket or safety kit, making them a key asset for personal safety.

PLBs can also be used in conjunction with Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs), which are aviation-specific, to aid in cross-platform SAR operations where vessels and aircraft are involved.

Differences Between an EPIRB and a PLB

There are several differences between EPIRBs and PLBs. However, the main distinction is that EPIRBs are specifically designed for marine environments and are registered to a vessel. Alternatively, PLBs are registered to an individual and are typically used on land as well as for marine.

Overview of How EPIRBs Work

All EPIRBs function in exactly the same way regardless of type along with the global search and rescue infrastructure, leveraging satellites for detection and location pinpointing.

The Cospas-Sarsat system is a global search and rescue network using satellites to detect and locate distress signals, quickly alerting local SAR services for immediate response and rescue operations.

EPIRBs in this system are linked to specific vessels and have unique identifiers, aiding Rescue Coordination Centers (RCCs) in organizing rescue missions with agencies like the NOAA in the US. The system includes multiple components.

Ground Stations (LUTs)Local User Terminals receive distress signals passed on from the satellites.
Mission Control Centers (MCCs)These centers process data from LUTs and send out alerts to the appropriate RCC.

Satellites form the core of EPIRB detection in the Cospas-Sarsat system, covering large Earth areas to enhance signal detection. Two main satellite types are utilized.

Geostationary Satellites: These remain in a fixed position relative to the Earth’s surface and can detect a distress signal instantaneously without the Doppler shift. However, they cannot detect signals from some polar regions.

Polar Orbiting Satellites: These move relative to the Earth and are capable of detecting the Doppler shift in the distress signal frequency. This shift allows for accurate location determination, expanding coverage to the entire globe, including polar areas.

Upon receiving an EPIRB distress signal, a Cospas-Sarsat satellite relays it to a ground station, which forwards it to the MCC. This triggers the deployment of SAR units to the beacon’s location.

EPIRB Registration and False Alerts

Proper registration of your EPIRB is not just for compliance, but to help manage and reduce false alerts which can lead to unnecessary search and rescue operations.

Registration ensures that in the event of an emergency, rescuers have the vital information they need to assist you.

📝 Author’s Note: Check out our full guide on how to register an EPIRB.

After registration, you will receive a unique identifier (UIN), also known as a HEX ID, which is programmed into your beacon. This UIN must be kept current with your up-to-date contact information and any other relevant details about your voyage or vessel.

False alerts from EPIRBs can strain search and rescue resources and can divert attention from genuine emergencies. To manage and reduce false activations:

  1. Always handle your EPIRB with care, understanding that it should only be activated during life-threatening emergencies.
  2. Regularly check your EPIRB’s battery health and replace it before the expiry date.
  3. Familiarize yourself with the activation and deactivation procedures to avoid accidental triggering.
  4. In the event of an unintended activation, inform the authorities immediately to avoid launching unnecessary rescue efforts.

False alerts can often be attributed to accidental activation, mishandling, or environmental factors. To address a false alert, rescuers may need to verify the signal; having your EPIRB registered makes it easier for them to contact you or your emergency contacts to confirm the situation.

Legal Conventions and Requirements

Category I and II EPIRBs are governed by international conventions designed to protect lives at sea.

The most prominent framework is the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which is a standard for all commercial shipping.

SOLAS requirements stipulate that ships must be equipped with a Category I EPIRB, which automatically deploys and activates when submerged in water.

The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) further mandates that certain classes of ships carry these devices to expedite rescue operations by Rescue Coordination Centers (MRCC).

Each country often reinforces international conventions with its own national legislation. For example, in the United States, the Coast Guard sets regulations for EPIRBs that require all commercial vessels under U.S. jurisdiction to carry and properly maintain them.

Compliance with these regulations is crucial not only for adherence to the law but also for ensuring the device’s functionality in emergencies.

NOAA also plays a role, as EPIRBs must be registered with them, which is a free service that can significantly speed up rescue response times.

Frequently Asked

An EPIRB’s range is effectively global coverage through the Cospas-Sarsat satellite system. This ensures that your emergency alert can be received regardless of your location on the world’s oceans.

While an EPIRB sends a distress signal to satellites for relay to a rescue coordination center, a SART is used to locate a survival craft or distressed vessel by sending a signal that is picked up by nearby ships’ radar. A SART provides a precise location to facilitate a more immediate rescue by nearby vessels.

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.