Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons and Personal Locator Beacons are devices often used in the maritime industry on commercial and personal vessels alike. Their functions are similar in that they help enable rescue operations to better track and retrieve people during emergency situations.

Emergency and Personal Locator Beacons

In recent years, EPIRBs and PLBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons and Personal Locator Beacons, respectively) have become practically invaluable for all branches of the maritime industry. Their effectiveness and accuracy levels have increased over time, and they are now ranked as some of the most reliable and popular boat safety equipment items that boaters can possess. EPIRBs have even become required on most commercial vessels in many countries, and serious boaters are increasingly seeing the value of obtaining a PLB for at least themselves, if not also for those who frequently boat with them. If you are considering a boating trip of any distance or duration, you should seriously consider getting one or both of these devices. 

What Are EPIRBs and PLBs? 

The names of these beacons convey what they are and give some hint as to how they function, but both of these complex types of equipment come with similarities and differences to each other, and are used for slightly different purposes. Their functions are much the same; EPIRBs and PLBs both utilize the 406 MHz distress frequency (which works on both earth and satellite stations). The beacons send a special coded message to the nearest rescue coordination station, and the rescue services can use the information in that message to help them coordinate a timely, accurate rescue operation. The information in the coded message allows the recue coordinators to ascertain who (or what vessel) is in distress, as well as their approximate location. Their value is clear: should your boat become inoperable or should you go overboard, the information that these devices transmit can greatly help a team of rescuers find and assist you.

Difference Between Emergency and Personal Locator Beacons 

Though EPIRBs and PLBs utilize similar technology, they are meant to fulfill two different functions during a time of crisis. EPIRBs are registered to a vessel, and the information that they convey to rescuers has to do specifically with the vessel to which the EPIRB is registered. If you change boats at any point and wish to take the EPIRB from one boat to another, the EPIRB must be re-registered under the new boat. PLBs, on the other hand, are registered to individuals, and convey information about that specific person to the rescuers. 

PLBs are to be kept with you during the duration of your time on the water, and are often not much larger than a mobile device like a phone. EPIRBs are usually much larger, and often have their case anchored somewhere easily accessible (often on deck). There is also a fairly large discrepancy between the operating lives of EPIRB and PLB devices. PLBs are designed to have a battery life (and a signal conveyance time) that lasts a minimum of 24 hours. EPIRBs are designed to last a minimum of 48 hours.

How to Use Emergency and Personal Locator Beacons

Most EPIRBs and PLBs have the ability to be activated both manually and automatically. Part of the reasoning for the coded message system is to guard against an accidental deployment of rescue forces, or for the devices to be misused. When one of these devices is activated, the nearest rescue services will attempt to contact the individual or the vessel that the device is registered to in order to confirm that the distress call is a valid one. Upon receiving confirmation of a perilous situation (or if they are unable to get in touch with anyone), the rescue operation will go into effect. A rescue effort of any kind can be both expensive and dangerous for everyone involved, so it is important that an EPIRB or PLB is not activated needlessly.

The technology that drives EPIRBs and PLBs is becoming increasingly advanced and accurate. Currently, a satellite can often determine the position of EPIRBs within a 3-mile radius. This may sound like a large amount of space, but given how expansive open water can be, this actually helps narrow down the search area substantially. In addition, many devices come with a secondary alerting system that will become activated when rescuers are nearby, and will convey a more specific position to them, making you all the more easier to find. Given their importance in times of peril, it is crucial that you keep your EPIRBs in the same place at all times, and to check regularly that they are up-to-date and ready for use should the need arise.

Any time you are going over safety protocol with passengers or crew, clear and concise instruction should be given as to where the EPIRB is located and how and when it is to be used. By going over this information frequently with those who travel with you, you will help ensure that the device is used correctly and effectively. It would be wise to register at least one PLB to yourself, but you should encourage other boaters or passengers or crew that travel with you frequently to consider registering a PLB to themselves as well. Though some might protest at the annoyance of carrying another piece of equipment with them at all times, it could very well mean the difference of life and death should the worst occur at sea.

Who Should Use Emergency and Personal Locator Beacons and How Do You Choose?

If you operate a commercial vessel, most countries will require that you keep a registered EPIRB onboard. However, even if an EPIRB is not a legal requirement, it is usually recommended that personal vessels be equipped with one as well. No one likes to think that they worst can happen to them while they are out on the water, but accidents and unforeseeable circumstances do occur, and an EPIRB can make all the difference when it comes to the survival of yourself and your crew, and even the possibility of salvaging your vessel.

If you do not own your own boat but plan to charter a vessel or spend any amount of time out on the water, then a PLB is a worthy investment. Even if you own and operate your own watercraft with a registered EPIRB aboard, a PLB is still a good idea since it will increase your chances of being found and rescued should you become separated from your boat. The key to its usefulness is it being kept on your person at all times while you are boating. Remember to transfer it to whatever you are wearing, and to put it in a safe, easily accessible location on your craft when it is not in use.

EPIRBs and PLBs: Necessary Boating Safety Equipment

So many strides have been taken in the last century alone to help ensure the safety of boaters and to increase the effectiveness of rescue operations. EPIRBs and PLBs have contributed enormously to the success of this campaign. While they are not an absolute guarantee of safety or even rescue, they can at the very least increase your chances (and the chances of your crew and passengers) of being located and saved during an emergency. With proper registration, frequent checks, and responsible care and use, EBIRBs and PLBs can be reliable and invaluable pieces of boating safety equipment. No matter where in the world you are boating or what type of vessel you choose to travel on, an EPIRB or PLB can truly increase your chances of survival on the water.