GPS Emergency Beacons: What are the benefits?

While emergency beacon technology has been available for over 60 years, GPS enabled EPIRBs are relatively new. Faster and more accurate than non-GPS EPIRBs, they offer the best chance of saving lives in emergency situations.

Time is critical in emergency situations. Whether on land or at sea, having the means to receive alert signals from distressed people as quickly as possible, and subsequently being able to locate those people without delay, can literally be the difference between life and death.

In terms of rescues, the first 24 hours are critical. In most cases, if survivors of an emergency can be located within this period of time, they can generally be saved. For this reason, rescue services refer to it as the “golden day”.

Developed in the 1950s by the US military, emergency position-indicating radio beacon station (EPIRBs) have dramatically increased the prospects of finding survivors of an emergency within that all-important golden day.

Today sometimes known as personal locator beacons (PLBs), these devices utilise satellite technology to pinpoint locations. They work like this:

1. Following an emergency incident, they are activated (either manually by survivors or automatically).

2. A geostationary satellite rapidly detects the HexID or Unique Identification Number (UIN) of the beacon and transfers it to the relevant authority. While this obviously varies from country to country, in Australia the authority involved is the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC).

3. All emergency beacons should be registered by their owners. Assuming this is the case, the authority contacts the nominated next-of-kin to alert them of the situation and obtain more information that could help with the rescue.

4. The relevant authority either initiates the search mission or, if the location is in another jurisdiction, notifies the relevant authority in that country (e.g., the New Zealand Rescue Coordination Centre in NZ). This is particularly significant inn maritime contexts, given the fact that boats often find themselves away from their home base.

5. All going well, the rescue team locates the exact position of the distressed person/people and completes the rescue.

While this emergency procedure hasn’t changed significantly over time, since their introduction over 60 years ago, EPIRBs have benefitted from several technological advances. The most recent of these is the introduction of GPS technology.

These latest EPIRBs and PLBs use GPS to enhance the Doppler position received by satellites. GPS-enabled 406 MHz beacons not only deliver a more accurate indication of location, but also make it possible to contact the families of those involved in the emergency without delay.

Advantages of GPS-enabled emergency beacons:

1) Faster
For both GPS-enabled and non-GPS enabled devices, alert time is more or less the same: within minutes after activation. However, there is a big difference in the time taken to provide a location.

Traditional non-GPS devices take anywhere between 90 minutes and five hours to complete the task. The reason for this is that non-GPS EPIRBs have to wait for the satellite to pass twice over the location before it can confirm an accurate position. The large variation in times for these devices (90 minutes – 5 hours) is due to the fact that satellites don’t follow the same path every time they move.

In contrast, GPS EPIRBs deliver an accelerated response. They take a maximum of just 20 minutes to provide a location. In an emergency situation involving, say a vessel lost at sea, that time is critical for those trying to locate survivors and save lives. GPS devices are clearly superior.

2) Increased Accuracy
On top of that, GPS EPIRBs are more accurate than non-GPS beacons. GPS-enabled EPIRBs are accurate within a distance of approximately 100m, while their non-GPS-enabled counterparts deliver accuracy within a distance of 5 km. Again, the difference is significant, and the consequences are obvious.

Whether on land or at sea, if you find yourself in circumstances where you need to be carrying an emergency beacon in the first place, you can’t afford to choose anything but the best. And in this case, the best is a GPS-enabled EPIRB that can alert authorities in the shortest time and with the greatest precision. The stakes are too high to accept anything less.

GME, a Sydney-based designer and manufacturer of world-class radio communication equipment, offers a full range of GPS EPIRBs and GPS PLBs that are suitable for use both on land and at sea. Featuring the latest designs and most advanced features, these products can be relied upon to provide the best chance of savings lives in emergency situations. Visit GME’s website to find out more.

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