Ask Ken: What is the difference between an EPIRB and a PLB?

Learn the differences between an EPIRB and a PLB.

March 25, 2015

Q. What is the difference between an EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon) and a PLB (personal locator beacon)?

A. EPIRBs and PLBs are similar in that both can alert and summon first-responder assistance when a serious emergency (eminent threat to life or vessel) occurs. EPIRBs should be mounted where they can be quickly grabbed. Some are designed to deploy automatically when a vessel sinks. They have a 48-hour operation time, float upright and have a built-in strobe light to guide rescuers in poor visibility when they approach your location. PLBs are intended for personal use and to be held in the hand, worn on a life jacket or article of clothing, or carried in a pocket. Operating time is limited to 24 hours, not all models float, and PLBs must be held upright with the antenna in a vertical position. Most lack a strobe light. PLBs can also be used on land in remote locations for hiking, camping, mountain climbing, exploring and other outdoor activities to summon emergency help if needed. EPIRB and PLB signals are both broadcast on 406 MHz and both received by the closest RCC (Rescue Coordination Center), which makes the call to the appropriate rescue agency, be it Air Force, Coast Guard, Fish and Wildlife, National Park Service or Sheriff’s Office. EPIRBs and PLBs save lives. Don’t leave port without one.

EPIRB Categories
There are two basic types of EPIRBs, Category 1 and Category 2. Category 2 models are manually activated and require the user to turn on the EPIRB by depressing a button or flipping a switch. When activated, a mayday is instantly transmitted that announces your need for immediate assistance, the identity and description of your boat, and your location. Category 1 models can also be manually activated but more importantly have a special mounting bracket that senses 6 feet of water pressure and automatically releases the EPIRB and floats to the surface. It then begins transmitting its mayday message without human assistance.


GPS-Enhanced EPIRBs
Most EPIRBs sold today have an embedded GPS receiver to increase the reported accuracy of your location. This can reduce search-and-rescue time substantially. Many PLB models have built-in GPS as well. When shopping, choose a GPS-integrated model. The Coast Guard issued a safety bulletin recently strongly urging owners of older EPIRBs to upgrade to a GPS-enhanced model. With the old EPIRBs, critical rescue time is wasted attempting to pinpoint the location of a mayday broadcast.

Smart EPIRBs
A new type of EPIRB and some PLBs feature a digital display that provides the user with valuable feedback and operational information. This includes confirmation that your set is in good operational health, and more importantly, it warns you when your set is not working properly. These smart models can prompt you on correct activation procedures and can reassure you, when activated, that your emergency message has been successfully received. The digital display also indicates your exact location and lets you know remaining battery power and when battery replacement is needed.

PLB Enhancements
Some PLBs have added features, such as the ability to transmit short nonemergency text or e-mail preprogrammed messages to let family or friends know that you are all right (i.e., “I’m OK” message) and exactly where you are to keep them informed as you progress on your journey (subscription required). Some also have LED strobe lights to guide rescuers to your location.


Price Range
EPIRBs: From under $500 to $1,000 plus
PLBs: From under $300 to $500

Main Players
ACR Electronics:
GME/Whiffletree Corp.:
McMurdo-Kannad Marine/Survitec Survival Products:
Simrad Yachting:


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