Photo by Terry Boram
Photo by Terry Boram

Saved by the Beacon

On a calm evening in February a loud splash echoed across Biscayne Bay. In a split second a man had fallen overboard, requiring immediate assistance. Soon a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter was on the scene with a Florida Fish and Wildlife vessel shortly behind, locating the man in the water and pulling him to safety. How did this rescue come together so quickly? Fortunately the man was wearing a Personnel Locator Beacon which, upon activation, set an entire team in motion to save his life. The actual event was a planned demonstration coordinated by the National Safe Boating Council and ACR Electronics, Inc. to introduce the Saved by the Beacon campaign.

Each year more than 500 lives are lost due to recreational boating accidents. Rachel Johnson, Executive Director, National Safe Boating Council says, “It’s important for boaters to understand the importance of boating safety, such as always wearing a life jacket, following navigation rules, and having an emergency locator beacon on board their boat or worn on their life jacket.” Saved by the Beacon was developed under a grant from the Sports Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund administered by the U.S. Coast Guard to help recreational boater understand the importance of emergency locator beacons and how to use them correctly.

Emergency locator beacons work on a 406 MHz frequency. When activated either automatically or manually, depending on type, the beacon sends a 15-digit Unique Identification Number (UIN) signal to NOAA satellites known as COSPAS-SARSAT.  Once the satellite finds the location of the distress signal, sometimes in as little as 30 seconds, the information is relayed to the Mission Control Center in Maryland. The information is quickly routed to a Rescue Coordination Center operated by the U.S. Coast Guard for water rescues. The RCC accesses the beacon’s registration information to verify the emergency and notifies local Search and Rescue forces. Johnson reiterates, “Bringing together NOAA, the U.S. Coast Guard, and local search and rescue is no small task, but one that’s essential to save boaters’ lives.”

There are two types of locator beacons for marine use: an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon or EPIRB and a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). An EPIRB is registered to the vessel and should be mounted to the boat free of overhead obstructions yet easily accessible. Depending on the model the activation is either manual in or out of the bracket or automatic when out of the bracket and in the water.  The transmission of the signal lasts a minimum of 48 hours. The PLB is a much smaller unit and can either be worn or carried. It is manually activated with a minimum of 24 hours transmission. The key to owning a beacon is registering it with NOAA. Without completing this simple step there can delay rescue response.

Without owner, vessel and emergency contact information the only information the team has is the GPS coordinates provided by the beacon. Though GPS technology has improved over the years the coordinate can be off by several feet to several miles. Having a description of the vessel provides rescuers a visual clue when searching. If there was one message Ms. Johnson wants all recreational boaters to know it is, “Register your emergency locator beacon! It is very easy and takes just a few minutes that might become a lifetime of survival. If any of your information changes (phone number, address, marital status), you must update your registration.”

ACR Electronics, Inc. is a world leader in safety and survival technology. As host of this special live rescue, their products were on full display. From the PLB on the “victim” to the flare used to signal the rescuer,  ACR made it clear that they have one mission — saving lives.

To bring that message home, Adam Kreek, a member of ACR’s Survivor Club, spoke about how the beacon saved his life. During an attempt at a trans-Atlantic rowing expedition from Senegal Africa to Miami, Fla.,  Adam and three other crewmembers capsized 2700 miles off the coast of Africa. Once in the water they each activated their ResQLink Personal Locator Beacons on their life jackets, setting their eventual rescue in motion. Adam remembers thinking, “Did the beacon activate? Was anyone listening?” The beacon was heard. Family members were contacted, a Coast Guard C-130 was deployed, and coordination with a passing commercial vessel all played a role in bringing the rowers back to dry land. After 12 hours at sea the men were reunited with their families in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Over the course of the year the Saved by the Beacon campaign will share more real life survival stories to bring awareness of how important having a beacon can be. The campaign will feature PSAs, infographics and a book, which will also be available as an e-book. The campaign will also compare the benefits of beacons to other commonly used mariner’s communications devices such as VHF-FM (DSC) radios, GPS trackers and cellphones.

Learn more about “Saved by the Beacon” and how to get involved in the campaign at www.SavedbytheBeacon.com.

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