After responding to over 700 false alerts in 2018, the Coast Guard is urging anyone with an emergency position indicating radio beacon to properly register their device.
An EPIRB is a device that transmits a distress signal to a satellite system called Cospas-Sarsat. The satellites relay the signal to a network of ground units and ultimately to the Coast Guard and other emergency responders.
Owners of commercial fishing vessels, uninspected passenger vessels that carry six or more people, and uninspected commercial vessels are legally required to carry an EPIRB. However, the Coast Guard recommends that every mariner who transits offshore or on long voyages should carry an EPIRB.
The Federal Communications Commission requires all EPIRB owners to register their beacons with NOAA and keep the registration information up-to-date.
If an unregistered beacon activates, the FCC can prosecute the owner based on evidence provided by the Coast Guard, and will issue warning letters or notices of apparent liability for fines up to $10,000.
Coast Guard personnel were only able to contact 163 of the more than 700 EPIRB owners to determine the cause of the false alerts. The other individuals had not registered their beacons, not updated their registration information, or had disposed of them improperly.
“We handle EPIRB alerts with a bias for action,” said Lt. Daniel Dunn, a command duty officer in the Fifth Coast Guard District’s command center. “We have to treat them as actual distress calls until we can prove otherwise.”
When Coast Guard watchstanders receive an EPIRB alert and cannot trace it to the owner due to missing or outdated registration information, they launch aircraft and boat crews to search the area for signs of distress.
It costs approximately $15,000 per hour to fly an HC-130 Hercules airplane, $10,000 per hour to fly an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, and $5,000 per hour to operate a Coast Guard small boat.
“If people used this system appropriately, it would take a lot of the guesswork out of search and rescue,” said Dunn. “Unregistered EPIRBs result in lost time, money, and the misuse of resources that could be used to save someone’s life.”