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Which EPIRB Do I Need ?

24th April 2017

What is an EPIRB?

An EPIRB is a type of tracking device that is used on board both commercial and leisure marine craft to provide assistance at sea in the event of emergencies. They can also be used as personal assistance devices or in other transport industries such as in aircraft.

EPIRB stands for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon with smaller devices being known as PLBs (Personal Locator Beacon).

EPIRBs come in a variety of sizes and shapes and offer a range of different features but all offer the same important function of being able to transmit their location to an international satellite used for search and rescue.

There are some important things to consider if you are thinking of investing in an EPIRB so we’ve put together this guide to walk you through the various options.

How do EPIRBS work?

EPIRBs must be deployed and activated to perform their primary function of transmitting their location. This can occur on the basis of manual or auto operation.

On manual deployment, the EPIRB must be physically removed from its mounting bracket in order to activate the signal. If the beacon is not fully removed from its bracket then the signal will not start transmission. Though some mariners prefer to have their EPIRBs on manual mode, the efficacy of operating such a system is limited in the event of an emergency where access to the beacon is restricted. This may be a result of crew being unable to reach the EPIRB due to a vessel capsizing or because they are not conscious themselves.

Most models with manual deployment modes also require crew to flick a switch to confirm transmission activation.

Automatic deployment of an EPIRB is the most effective way to ensure that the beacon is of use in the event of an emergency at sea. The sooner that a distress call is activated the sooner a rescue operation can be mounted. When it comes to search and rescue at sea, the ‘golden day’ (the first 24-hours) rule is imperative to the success of finding and rescuing a ship’s crew so time is of the essence.

EPIRBs fitted with automatic activation modes are generally water activated and will deploy from their bracket to begin auto-transmission. This is a useful feature if a vessel is sinking as it ensures the EPIRB is able to continue broadcasting from the sea’s surface. Deployment via this method occurs using a hydraulic release unit (HRU).

However an EPIRB is deployed, it starts broadcasting its signal (406 MHz) to the Cospas-Sarsat polar satellite (usually within three minutes). Delays in the system due to the incumbent position of the orbiting satellite mean that the signal may not be received by the emergency services until up to 45 minutes later. However, once a signal has been received the closest search and sea rescue operation will be alerted.

Before responding to a signal, attempts are made to contact the registered owner of the broadcasting EPIRB to determine whether a rescue is required. Failed attempts will result in a full-scale search and rescue operation being launched.

The EPIRB continues to transmit its location to Copsas-Sarsat which is accurate to within a 3-mile radius. Some devices then have a secondary transmitter which uses a frequency of 121.5 MHz and enables more accurate local lock-on. Devices that also use LED light can assist SAR operations to locate the position of the beacon and, hopefully, the struggling crew and vessel.


The Cospas-Sarsat was launched in 1982 as a non-profit, intergovernmental cooperative of more than 40 agencies worldwide. Each agency (including the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency) dedicate services to the detection and location of distress beacons including those at sea.

Since the satellite system started service over 25 years ago, the alliance has rescued almost 30,000 people in life threatening situations. In 2015, 718 search and rescue events were recorded with 2,185 people delivered to safety. Of these, 48% were in maritime situations.

There is no doubt that when the system is needed that it does work and is a great testament to the phenomenal work undertaken by the various SAR teams who put their own lives at risk to provide this service.

However, there is a duty of care that all EPIRB owners must employ to take responsibility for keeping their own system working.

The Importance of Registering an EPIRB

Firstly, it is essential that your EPIRB is registered in your country of origin. Failure to register your device may result in delays to any search and rescue being launched. In the event of an emergency, this could cause catastrophic delays in response time.

Registering an EPIRB allows you to appoint several emergency contacts whom the SAR services can attempt to contact when a beacon starts transmission. Being able to contact relatives, colleagues or friends could help prevent false alarms as well as improve the chances of your being found in a real emergency situation.

Here in the UK, registration should be undertaken with the [Maritime and Coastguard Agency](

Registration is free but is a requirement of using your EPIRB that you keep your details up to date. PIBs are registered to an individual but EPIRBS must be registered to the vessel they are mounted on with current contact details of emergency contacts as well as the primary crew contact

The Importance of Maintenance with an EPIRB

Depending on your model of EPIRB, certain maintenance checks will be required on a regular basis, including servicing (where applicable), checking the expiration date of HRUs and ensuring that the unit is kept free for clear access at all times. It is imperative that you replace the battery packs well before their expiration date and that you use the manufacturers recommended packs.

Most EPIRBs are fitted with a test mode that enables you to check battery life, signal strength and a visual check on things like the light feature.

What’s the difference between an EPIRB and a PIL?

When considering an EPIRB, some mariners opt for a PLB instead. Smaller and much more portable than an EPIRB, PLB devices are designed to be carried about your person. PLB’s are registered to an individual as opposed to a vessel which makes them a better option for crew that use a variety of boats. There are some drawbacks with the PLB including the fact that battery life can be far shorter than EPIRBs (24 hours vs 48 hours) and many are not designed for use at sea and do not float.

Otherwise, these two essential safety aids work in the same way, transmitting their location (once activated) to the Cospas-Sarsat system.

Buying an EPIRB

When choosing an EPIRB for your vessel you will want to decide on several important factors: Method of deployment and activation Size and mounting requirements Ease of operation Battery life of beacon Inclusion of secondary transmitter for more accurate homing Inclusion of LED lights


Using the latest digital technology, GME’s EPIRB features water activation and has a six year battery life and six year warranty. There is a second homing transmitter and includes non-hazardous, IATA approved material. The MT403 comes with a handy placard to mount with your beacon for quick reference.

Available to buy on Amazon, the GME-MT403 is priced at under £295.

Ocean Signal ME EPIRB1

The Ocean Signal ME EPIRB1 has a ten year battery life, 48+ hours of in-use battery life and comes with a five year warranty. It is auto-activated on submersion with the option of manual operation and also features an auxiliary transmitter for accurate homing location.

Priced at under £335, the Ocean Signal ME is a compact design with self-test features

McMurdo Smartfind E5

Slightly more expensive but featuring a flashing LED light and safe carrying case for transportation, the McMurdo Smartfind E5 has a five year battery life, five year warranty and an in-use battery life of over 48 hours. The self-diagnostics function carries out over 60 internal checks to provide peace of mind during annual service checks. An internationally approved model, you can pick up a Smartfind E5 for around £570


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