Before your boat starts leakin’, register your beacon

An EPIRB is shown attached to a Coast Guard small boat.

BALTIMORE – An emergency position indicating radio beacon is shown secured to a 25-foot Response Boat-Small at Coast Guard Station Curtis Bay, Md., Dec. 9, 2010. When activated, a properly registered EPIRB sends an electronic signal that will notify rescuers of a distress situation. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Brandyn Hill.

Summer will be here soon and what better way to enjoy the great weather than on the water? A prepared boater should have all the proper safety equipment aboard, including life jackets, visual and audio distress signals, navigation lights, a VHF-FM marine band radio and an emergency beacon. If the beacon has been properly installed and registered it will provide search and rescue centers with the location of the distressed boater and specific visual identity of the vessel.

Emergency beacons such as Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons and Personal Locater Beacons operate on the 406 megahertz international distress frequency and are tracked by satellites. EPIRBs can be activated one of two ways – manually or automatically. PLBs are portable beacons designed to be carried by an individual, whereas EPIRBS are typically mounted to a vessel. For either of these beacons to be effective, they must be registered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking.

A marine-band radio is shown set to channel 16.

BALTIMORE – A digital selective calling VHF-FM marine-band radio, set to channel 16, is shown energized for operations at Coast Guard Station Curtis Bay, Md., Dec. 9, 2010. DSC radios allow for a digital transfer between radios versus voice transmission which allows mariners to instantly send an automatically formatted distress alert to the Coast Guard, provided the radio is registered with a Maritime Mobile Service Identity number and connected to a compatible GPS unit. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Brandyn Hill.

With a VHF-DSC radio, a boater can press a button and transmit a distress signal. After activation, the radio sends out an electronic data packet including the vessel’s maritime mobile service identity, the boat’s description, name and the boat’s current position to the Coast Guard. Frequently boaters neglect to attach their VHF-DSC to their GPS and register their radio with a salvage company. As a result the Coast Guard never receives an MMSI number or a position, which severely delays rescue response time. The first step in rectifying the problem is registering the VHF-DSC radio with Towboat, Seatow or Boat US. The second step is hooking up the radio to an onboard GPS.

If a boater purchases either a new or a used United States coded 406 MHz emergency beacon, it is required by federal law to have it registered with NOAA. If a boater purchases a new vessel or changes any information on their registration, such as the phone number or address, the boater is legally obligated to update the 406 MHz beacon registration with NOAA.

If boaters sell their 406 MHz beacon, they must notify NOAA they have done so and need to make sure the buyer registers the beacon for themselves. Otherwise, the Coast Guard’s emergency response to EPIRBs, PLBs or VHF-DSC distress alerts can be delayed because the registration is incorrect or is out of date.

Having a properly registered EPIRB, PLB or VHF DSC radio on a vessel is essential to a safe boating season. In addition, free courtesy examinations are conducted by local Coast Guard Auxiliarists and can be scheduled for a boater’s vessel. The courtesy examination program can tell an owner if the vessel is appropriately outfitted with safety equipment and provide recommendations to improve safety while out on the water.


VHF-DSC radio information and how to obtain an MMSI can found at the following locations:

EPIRB/PLB registrations can be completed at the following location:

NASBLA website:

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