EPIRBs and PLBs in Australia

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EPIRBs or Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons are electronic devices designed to assist search and rescue authorities in locating vessels or passengers in distress at sea. All recreational vessels operating further than 2 nautical miles from the coast in Australian waters are required by law to carry one (South Australia has slightly different regulations, view the website for further details).

It is a good idea to carry one regardless of distance from shore or legislation. We will not cover in this article the requirements for vessels operating in a commercial capacity as they are governed separately.

Traditionally EPIRBs operated on a frequency of 121.5Mhz however this frequency is no longer monitored by search and rescue authorities so to meet the requirements your EPIRB must operate on a frequency of 406Mhz. If you currently have an EPIRB or are looking to purchase one, it should be clearly visible on the front of the EPIRB which one it is.

On most 406Mhz EPIRBs available today, they actually also transmit a 121.5Mhz signal as well. While it isn't monitored by satellite anymore, commercial aircraft and search and rescue helicopters do still have the ability to track on this signal from close range. The only real purpose for this is that it will assist in homing in on the EPIRB once the 406Mhz signal has got them within range.

It is very important to purchase your EPIRB from a reputable Australian source. Not only does it need to meet Australian standards, but the information transmitted by the EPIRB is country specific. Different countries use different prefixes on the Hex code transmitted and while it is possible to have some overseas models reprogrammed, it can be very difficult to find someone to do it and generally far to expensive to justify purchasing one from overseas.

As far as requirements go, that is pretty much it. If you are operating outside 2NM, you must have a 406Mhz Australian approved and coded EPIRB. Beyond that, additional options are available and well worth considering:

Manual activation means that once you have removed your EPIRB from it's bracket, you manually turn it on with a switch. Automatic activation means that the EPIRB will switch on when it makes contact with water. The automatic activation feature is usually disabled while the EPIRB is in its bracket, so you don't have to worry about it activating if it gets splashed.

Mounting brackets too can be a manual release or automatic type. Automatic release brackets contain a HRU (hydrostatic release unit) which will release the EPIRB once submerged in 1 meter of water. If you are using an automatic release bracket, it is vital that the EPIRB is also an automatic activation type.

Finally there is the option of GPS EPIRBs. GPS EPIRBs transmit the same 406MHz signal and 121.5Mhz signal as a normal EPIRB, but in addition they transmit your location coordinates (which they obtain from a built in GPS receiver).

This vastly improves the accuracy of the information supplied to search and rescue teams and also greatly reduces the time it takes for them to get a fix on your location. With standard 406Mhz EPIRBs orbiting satellites must calculate the position.

On average they will have a signal within 90 minutes, however this could take as long as 5 hours. Further, a non GPS EPIRB has an accuracy of around 5km. A GPS EPIRB will transmit your location to within 120mtrs on its first transmission.

PLBs or Personal Locator Beacons are very similar to EPIRBs but are much more compact. They are designed to be worn on your person at all times, or at least during rough conditions. They are most commonly used in man overboard situations or during land based activities such as snow skiing, hiking and 4WDing.

Some yacht racing categories require all sailors to carry them but outside of that they are not required by law. It is, of course, imperative that if you do use a PLB it is a 406Mhz one. You also have the choice of GPS or non GPS with the same consequences as above.

PLBs cannot be used as a replacement for a vessel EPIRB to meet legislative requirements. Due to the compact size, they will not float in the same manner as an EPIRB is required to. Some do not float at all.

For a variety of available EPIRB brands visit www.marinonics.com.au for pricing and further information.

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