Search and Rescue Goes Digital

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Coast Guard would like to remind commercial and recreational boaters that beginning Feb. 1, 2009, the Coast Guard and other search and rescue personnel will only receive distress alerts from digital 406-MHz Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs).

Because satellites will no longer process analog signals transmitting on 121.5 or 243.0 MHz, the Coast Guard urges mariners and aviators to upgrade their onboard analog equipment to include a digital 406-MHz EPIRB.

The 406-MHz EPIRB's signal is 50 times more powerful than the 121.5 or 243.0 MHz beacons, allowing satellites to better detect its signal and provide a more accurate search area for rescue crews. For instance, a GPS-embedded 406-MHz EPIRB can shrink a search area to about 100 yards and can pinpoint the position of a distressed mariner within minutes, whereas an analog beacon may only result in an initial search area of 500 square miles.

Additionally, the number of false alerts with digital beacons is significantly lower than analog beacons. Satellites are not capable of distinguishing between beacon and non-beacon sources using analog frequencies, making only about one in five alerts actually coming from a beacon. Many false alert signals come from ATMs, pizza ovens and stadium scoreboards.

With analog beacons, the only way to determine if an alert is an actual emergency is to send rescue crews to the area, which costs thousands of dollars, takes resources away from actual emergencies and puts the lives of responders at risk needlessly.

The decision to stop processing the analog 121.5 and 243 MHz signals was made by the International Copas-Sarsat Program with guidance from the United Nations. This was due to numerous signal reception problems and a high percentage of false alarms.

EPIRB owners are required by law to provide emergency contact information and a vessel description by registering their beacons with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration online at or by calling 1-888-212-SAVE.

For more information on EPIRBs and the switchover from analog signal to digital signal, please visit

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