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Thread: The effectiveness of an EPIRB

  1. #1

    Default The effectiveness of an EPIRB

    I purchased an EPIRB last year when I got an Achilles raft primarily for ocean use. I have wondered since that time if this was a good purchase or not. I read this article about the bear attack last year which they used a 'locator beacon.' I know there are different types of beacons, but it sounds like this was probably an EPIRB. I was kind of shocked that it took about five+ hours to rescue these young people who were only 100-150 north of Anchorage.
    First, I want to say that in no way whatsoever is this post aimed at demeaning search and rescue personnel or their methods. I appreciate each and everyone's efforts and they do a fine job. I am just wondering how much verification is needed before they launch a rescue? I realize that EPIRBs get inadvertently activated frequently and this is one of the problems. I also realize that there is not a helicopter or aircraft standing by at every airport in the state awaiting an EPIRB ping. Additionally , a lot of times when rescues are needed, the weather hampers efforts.
    The main thing I am wondering is if my EPIRB starts to send a signal, which I realize the sending can take up to 90 minutes depending on satellite activity, how long would it be until I saw someone in lower Cook Inlet (in relatively good weather) before a rescue effort is initiated? I have really concluded for ocean use in cold water, it would just be a locator for a corpse. If anybody has any experience working at the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC), I would be interested to hear how the process works.
    Thanks again to everyone that works to rescue us when a perilous situation strikes. I am thanking you now, because I hope to never meet you while you're on the job.

  2. #2
    Member Akheloce's Avatar
    Join Date
    Mar 2008


    My information is a bit dated, but should be roughly the same as how it works now. Every 90 minutes, a SARSAT orbits over Alaska. The Rescue Coordination Center requires at least 2 hits in the same general area before initiating rescue assets (sometimes 3, depending on the area). This is to cut down on false hits. When at (nearly) their highest alert status, the Air National Guard is on 1 hour alert. The process of checking weather, flight, and fuel planning takes some time, as well as physically starting the aircraft and departing. So, that being said, when relying on EPIRB/ SARSATs alone, best case scenario is in 2.5 hours, a helo is lifting off the ground, or it could be as many as 4 hours, depending on where the satellites happen to be when the EPIRB is activated.

    The times where the ANG is short alert is when the fighters are flying at Elmendorf, and additionally the Det. at Eilson. When the fighters are not flying, they may be on any number of longer alert sequences.

    The Army NG has facilities in Bethel, Nome, and Juneau where the rediness of the crew may be from 1 hour, to not available.

    The Coast Guard has helicopter bases in Kodiak, and Sitka, with seasonal deployments to other parts of the state--- I have no idea what their alert sequence is like.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Sep 2006
    Douglas Island


    Alaska presents some serious challenges for rescue operations; weather, terrain, distance, name it, we got it! In any given scenario, there always seems to be a sequence of events (or chain) that could be broken at any time to prevent injuries/fatalities. At the point in the sequence that the person recognizes that there is a problem, that person would typically take a quick assessment of equipment and options. An EPIRB should be one of those options....that being said, there are times when an EPRIB isn't the best option. Like tools in a toolchest, an EPIRB shouldn't be your only survival tool. And yes, it does take hours before help can arrive!

    Say that your situation was dire; you literally didn't have the survival time to make it until the helo arrives. Are there Good Sams nearby? Other people in camp or perhaps within radio range? Can you walk? How far to camp? The more options you have, the better chances you have; same with your "tools". Too many people seem to bet everything on one "option" and if/when that fails...

    My advice would be to run through your personal 'scenarios' and develop your own personalized tool box. Then talk to your peers and see what they think; it's amazing how something simple might escape your attention sometimes.

    Here's my personal 'survival kit' that I keep on my person when boating in SE:
    Mustang Survival MA6000 39.99

    1. ACR ResQLink ™ 406 GPS Personal Locator Beacon Model # PLB-375 279.99
    2. Greatland Rescue Laser GLF031-01 189.95
    3. Tri-Power Safety Whistle 6.98
    4. Standard Horizon HX851 Handheld VHF Radio 269.99
    5. WG0415 BlastMatch™ Fire Starter 24.99
    6. Spyderco Assist Black FRN ~ C79BK 129.95
    7. Orion Signal Products OLI-925 Orange Distress Flag 9.00

    Total cost $950.84

    Pouch is designed to be fastened to the belt of an inflatable life jacket.
    1) PLB is GPS enabled and will be the first piece of equipment deployed if rescue is not immediately at hand.
    2) Rescue Laser will be utilized if aircraft or vessel is in sight.
    3) Safety whistle will be utilized to draw attention within close proximity (harbor, docks, etc)
    4) VHF radio will be utilized to broadcast a MAYDAY (along with DSC distress function if rescue is not immediately at hand and can also be used to establish voice communications with rescuers.
    5) Fire starter will be utilized if shore can be reached, for heat/signaling purposes.
    6) Rescue knife will be utilized to free entangling lines or other general cutting purposes.
    7) Distress Flag will be utilized as a passive signaling device to capture attention.

    Most small vessel mishaps (fatalities) are from falls overboard and/or capsizing resulting in a man overboard situation. Adequate flotation and thermal protection are critical for extending survival times for rescuers to arrive.

    Given a water temperature of 45ºF , survival time variables include:

    Victims’ overall health (including body fat content)
    Mental state and fatigue level
    Ability to keep airway above water level
    Ability to minimize body heat losses

    If survival time is to exceed rescue response time, one must maximize survival time and minimize rescue response time.

    Other than effectively communicating your distress and location, there is little else a victim can do to minimize response time. Survival time is more within your control and to maximize your survival time, you must be fully prepared for a sudden cold water immersion event; just as you would fasten your seat belt and check your mirrors before pulling out of your driveway, you should always wear your PFD when underway in a small boat. Thermal protection is (for most victims) whatever they happen to have on at the time of the mishap. A stereotypical Alaskan boater would be wearing blue jeans, tee shirt & flannel shirt, knee high rubber boots, cotton socks and a jacket or windbreaker.

    This clothing choice is a common killer if/when a fall overboard occurs.



  4. #4


    Thanks for sharing your knowledge! My tool chest is similar to yours. I think that knowing the intricacies of each tool was where I was lacking. I am trying to get up to speed and know the capabilities and drawbacks of all my tools.
    You mentioned the typical attire of an Alaskan boater......
    What does the CG recommend for ideal attire beyond a survival suit? My question is more from a recreational boater POV.

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Sep 2006
    Douglas Island


    We recommend dressing for the water; in Alaska, this typically means extra thermal protection along with flotation...the problem starts when the ambient air temp is much higher than the water (you can quickly overheat!). My recommendation is to first determine your risk of falling overboard/capsizing. If you are alone in a small boat/open water, you'll likely want to be in a breathable dry suit or work suit. If you are in protected water/larger boat, the chances of falling overboard/capsizing are much less and you might as well dress more for comfort (as long as you are still wearing flotation!). If there are people nearby in other boats or people on your boat that have rescue training/experience and your chances of rescue are higher, then the risk is lower. The trick is to accurately assess the risk and mitigate as necessary. Is it a 'crap shoot'? Sure, to some degree at least; sometimes you'll never know when you need more protection until you don't have it! Like wearing a seat belt all the time and (hopefully) you'll not need it, but when you do, you want it worse than anything! Again, depending on my circumstances as to what I'll decide to wear. Sorry, no easy answers; too many variables! BOAT SAFER! Mike

  6. #6
    Supporting Member iofthetaiga's Avatar
    Join Date
    Oct 2009
    Tanana Valley AK


    Quote Originally Posted by cwm907 View Post
    The main thing I am wondering is if my EPIRB starts to send a signal, which I realize the sending can take up to 90 minutes depending on satellite activity...
    Quote Originally Posted by Akheloce View Post
    The Rescue Coordination Center requires at least 2 hits in the same general area before initiating rescue assets (sometimes 3, depending on the area). This is to cut down on false hits.
    As a person sometimes involved in the process, and having been recently involved with chasing a false activation, I can say that sometimes simply activating a beacon for only a second and immediately turning it off again, is enough to send a ping. Although this short ping is not enough to send GPS coordinates, the RCC will nonetheless begin the process of tracking down the registered owner of the beacon. By my experience interacting with them, I can say the RCC folks take their job very seriously and will spend a significant amount of very valuable time attempting to chase down even the shortest ping. I just want to impress upon folks that they should treat the use of their beacons seriously, and take great care to not generate false signals, even for a second. Additionally, ensure the registration information for the beacon you are carrying is current, and the person who will answer the phone when the RCC calls trying to track you down, knows exactly where you are and what you are up to. If you discard, transfer, or are no longer using a beacon, deactivate the registration, or ensure it is changed to it's new owner! Don't make the RCC folks waste valuable time and money chasing false alarms.
    ...he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. ~Thomas Jefferson
    I would rather have a mind opened by wonder than one closed by belief. ~Gerry Spence
    The last thing Alaska needs is another bigot. ~member Catch It


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