EPIRB, a sure life-saving signal from outer space, is a terrestrial acronym for emergency position indicator radio beacon. In short, it’s an electronic distress signal beamed from a small device aboard a boat or ship to search and rescue satellite receivers.


The maybe involves not the celestial complex component, but rather a simple terrestrial subcomponent: human error. Such an error nearly cost a father and son their lives in a recent boating mishap off the Florida coast.

According to Chris Landry, Senior Reporter for Soundings Magazine, the father bought a new EPIRB for their 25-foot center console powerboat for an upcoming trip to the Bahamas. While underway their boat flooded and then rolled. The EPIRB failed to activate.

The father and son clung to the overturned hull hopeful that they would be rescued. After eight hours, there was no rescue response—nothing. Apparently, they had failed to read the EPIRB instructions. What the father and son didn’t know is that the EPIRB must be on the surface for its antenna to transmit GPS coordinates to SAR satellites.

Trapped within its pouch in the underside of the boat’s t-top, the EPIRB might just as well have not been aboard. By happenstance, or if you wish, by divine providence, the EPIRB worked free of the pouch and floated to the surface, releasing its life-saving signal that led to their rescue.

Since 1982, this incredible modern-day satellite rescue system has saved over 24,500 people worldwide, and over 6,108 people in the U.S. NOAA, which plays a key role in the search and rescue satellite system, offers the following advice to mariners about EPIRBs.

Listen up: these NOAA folks speak in a deck-plate language this old senior chief can clearly understand

As with any safety gear, it’s only as good as the person operating it. Spend some time familiarizing yourself with your EPIRB. The following addresses the 406 MHz EPIRB designed for maritime use. 

Test your EPIRB in accordance with manufacturers’ recommendations. Most EPIRB activation switches have a test position. This allows the entire unit, including battery and antenna, to be tested without generating a false alarm.

Register your EPIRB with NOAA. This will help flush out a false alarm. If the EPIRB is properly registered, the situation can be resolved with a simple phone call from the Coast Guard. It will also help speed a rescue if need be. If your EPIRB is not registered, a form is included on NOAA’s homepage. It’s free, it’s easy, and it’s the law.

Affix your registration decal on the EPIRB so it can be easily read without taking the EPIRB out of its bracket. A surprising amount of false alarms are generated by people—sometimes Coast Guard safety inspectors—doing so to check the decal.Never remove the EPIRB from its bracket without first switching it to the "Off" position, unless it is an actual distress. Also, never allow others to remove it. Many false alarms are generated by curious meddlers. Another common source of false alarms: removing the EPIRB to perform boat maintenance such as painting.

Ensure that the EPIRB batteries are within their expiration date.

If the EPIRB is not on the vessel, it should be switched off. This avoids the embarrassment of SAR forces converging on the trunk of your car, hopefully not during rush hour.

Finally, search and rescue satellites are good at what they do, detecting emergency beacons. An activation of a 406 MHz EPIRB for just a few seconds will be detected. After a few minutes, it will be detected and located. This is good if you’re in distress, but if you’re not, you just generated a false alarm and a possible needless use of valuable life-saving resources that might be desperately needed elsewhere.

It could be you elsewhere, Boat Smart; know your EPIRB. For more information regarding EPIRBs and how to registered then log onto: https://www.sarsat.noaa.gov/.

Tom Rau is a retired 27-year Coast Guard veteran, boating safety columnist, and author of Boat Smart Chronicles, Lake Michigan Devours Its Wounded. His book is a 20-year journal of recreational boating mishaps with valuable lessons learned. It, along with recent rescue stories, can be viewed at: boatsmart.net.

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Photo(s) by Courtesy NOAA