By Ben Ellison
Lifeguards in the Sky
|Improvements (and problems) in the SARSAT system, and what you need to know to use it responsibly.|
The following is a true tale of terrific technology and good people badly misused. One Sunday in October of last year, the global Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) system picked up a distress signal from an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). In seconds the electronic cry for help sped to NOAA’s Mission Control Center, where personnel traced its unique identity number to the Seattle area and routed it to the appropriate regional Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center (RCC). Boat and helicopter crews were alerted for a possible scramble, and an urgent VHF message was broadcast asking local boaters to be on the lookout. RCC staff also called the phone number registered to the EPIRB, hoping to both notify the owner’s family and confirm that he or she was actually at sea. But the phone was disconnected, and the signal—not yet located—suddenly ceased. The distress call, and the related rescuer stress, went unresolved. No doubt many caring folks slept less soundly that night, wondering if someone was out there in trouble.
Five days later the very same EPIRB signal was picked up again, only this time long enough for the satellites to get a fix good to about two miles via the Doppler shifting of its 5-watt 406-MHz primary signal (the process takes 30 to 90 minutes), and then for rescuers to precisely home in on its secondary 121-MHz transmission. They found the device floating in a suburban swimming pool, where its owner was apparently grooving on its flashing strobe light, blissfully ignorant of the tool’s serious purpose and all the trouble he was causing, not to mention his obligation to update its registration information after he’d bought it secondhand at a garage sale.
This is unquestionably an extreme example, the first owner’s irresponsibility only exceeded by that of the second owner’s, but the truth is that most all of us need a little schooling to best use the evolving system fully titled COSPAS-SARSAT (COSPAS is simply the equivalent of SARSAT in Russian). Now please don’t let disaster-at-sea thinking eat at your enthusiasm for boating; you probably take a greater risk on your morning commute. That said, you should consider how much an instantaneous, violent car accident differs from a typical bad scene on the water. Be it sinking, collision, fire, or man overboard, most marine accidents are two-stage affairs.
In general the initial incident is bad but not fatal. The second stage, when people or crew find themselves in a suddenly hostile environment, can be very bad indeed—and tragically frustrating to rescuers and rescuees alike who know there is time enough to reverse the situation if only a distress call can be received, located, and responded to fast enough.
That is what SARSAT is all about. In operation since 1982, the system has contributed to more than 15,000 rescues worldwide and over 4,500 in the United States alone, according to NOAA’s informative Web site, www.sarsat.noaa.gov. But the system is not perfect, and there are issues worth knowing about. One is the discontinuation of the original 121.5-MHz EPIRB, whose signal is much weaker and harder to locate than the newer 406 beacon and does not contain the ID number that can lead to quick resolution of false alarms, as what should have happened in Seattle. The worldwide cutoff date was recently set to February 1, 2009, but the Coast Guard is lobbying to stop listening for these signals much sooner. And experts like Doug Ritter, founder of the nonprofit survival research organization Survive Foundation (www.equipped.org), highly recommends replacing 121.5-MHz units right away, simply for performance reasons. (Note that 406-MHz EPIRBs also broadcast on 121.5 MHz because the rescue services, and some yachts, are equipped to do final homing in on this frequency.)
This article originally appeared in the December 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.