By Ben Ellison
At presstime last month the Equipped to Survive Foundation (ETS) had just announced that its testing had uncovered serious issues with the GPS-equipped EPIRBs and PLBs made by McMurdo. In fact, the units failed to self-locate in any of the Foundation’s marine tests, which included real-world scenarios like use aboard a liferaft in rain and spray (pictured on page 38). I’m using this month’s Q&A space to update the story.
West Marine—which, along with BoatU.S., sponsored and attended the testing—has stopped selling McMurdo Precision EPIRBs and Fastfind Plus PLBs and is advising prior customers to read the test summary and consider a full refund or exchange if they desire. Other retailers like Landfall Navigation are taking similar actions. McMurdo first announced that it will conduct its own test program, similar to ETS’s, and then began offering a free software upgrade to its GPS-assisted beacons. ETS plans another round of real-world testing for the upgraded units.
Another issue brought up in ETS’s test report was how submerging the base of a PLB’s antenna in water weakened both its 406-MHz call-for-help signal to the satellites and the 121.5-MHz signal that rescuers can hone in on, a problem made worse in McMurdo’s Fastfind design because of its antenna well. McMurdo intends to redesign that antenna—ACR already has in its latest PLBs (see page 44)—but the testers at Equipped tell me that the problem is not critical enough to warrant returning a non-GPS PLB. However, it is wise for a person overboard to position a PLB as high and dry as possible, as the U.S. Coast Guard is advising its Fastfind-equipped deck personnel.
Anyone interested in marine safety should check out ETS’s report at www.equipped.org. Aside from more guidance on smart EPIRB and PLB use, you’ll learn how effective the COSPAS-SARSAT safety system really is (also see “Lifeguards in the Sky,” January 2004), even if the desirable GPS option is hard to design and its equipment standards need an upgrade. You will also likely come away, as I did, extremely grateful for the good work done by the ETS and its sponsors on our behalf. —B.E.
Got a marine electronics question? Write to Electronics Q&A, Power & Motoryacht, 260 Madison Ave., 8th Fl., New York, NY 10016. Fax: (917) 256-2282. e-mail: PMYElectronics@primedia.com. No phone calls, please.
This article originally appeared in the June 2004 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.