How to Choose an Emergency Beacon

The best way to get found is with EPIRBs and PLBs.

Rescue and retail have three things in common: location, location, location. Your odds in an emergency go up exponentially if authorities know your exact position. Two choices for signaling include an EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon) or a PLB (personal locator beacon). Here is a quick-reference buyer’s guide to help you select the right model for you.

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EPIRBs: I or II?
A Category II EPIRB broadcasts a mayday identifying your boat and your position when you manually activate it. Category I models have a special mounting bracket that releases it to float to the surface and automatically transmit unassisted when the EPIRB senses six feet of water pressure. Both operate on the 406 MHz frequency.


GPS-Enhanced EPIRBs
GPS integrated with an EPIRB reduces the search-and-rescue area from approximately two square miles to within 300 feet and can shrink the reporting time of your location to rescuers from an average of 90 minutes to as little as five minutes. These sets either have embedded GPS receivers or can be connected to a GPS.


Smart EPIRBs
A new type of EPIRB features a digital display that provides the user with valuable feedback. It confirms the EPIRB is working properly, prompts you on correct activation procedure, assures that your mayday signal was received, indicates your exact location, reports remaining battery power and tells you when the EPIRB needs to be serviced.

Palm-size PLBs are intended to be worn on the belt, clothing or life jacket, or carried by an individual. Their emergency signals are picked up by the same satellites that EPIRBs use. PLBs are only manually activated and have an operating life of 24 to 35 hours. (EPIRBs might exceed 72 hours.) They make a perfect personal mayday device if you go overboard.


Future of EPIRBs
What do you get when you cross an EPIRB that has GPS with an AIS (Automatic Identification System) device? You get an emergency radio beacon that not only signals the U.S. Coast Guard but also broadcasts your message to all nearby AIS-equipped vessels in the area. McMurdo just announced a Smartfind AIS Beacon.


Make Tracks
Personal satellite trackers, such as SPOT and DeLorme, are great emergency signaling devices, offering text messaging and social media sharing of your position. They have less power than a PLB or EPIRB and may not be certified to government standards for marine use.

Don’t Forget
You must register your EPIRB or PLB with NOAA. Go to


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