Manual or Automatic EPIRB: What Should You Carry On Your Boat?

EPIRB refers to emergency beacons that are specifically designed for use on boats. Originally intended for military use, the devices provide the best means to alert authorities in the event of an emergency, and subsequently avoid the loss of life at sea.

In Australia, according to regulations established by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), it is mandatory for most types of domestic commercial vessels to carry EPIRBS.

However, EPIRBS aren’t all the same. There are a variety of types and models available including, for example, GPS-enabled EPIRBs that are able to pinpoint the location of the distressed vessel significantly faster and more accurately than traditional non-GPS-enabled EPIRBs.

On top of that, different EPIRBs have different means of activation. These include:

Manual EPIRBS – Stored in secure mounting brackets, these distress beacons need to be activated by those on board the vessel. When an emergency arises, the user simply removes the device from its bracket and activates the beacon.

Automatic water activated EPIRBS – Also stored securely in mounting brackets, these distress beacons can either be activated manually or automatically when they are submerged in water. In other words, as soon as they fall or are dropped into water, they activate themselves and begin sending a distress signal.

Float-free EPIRBS – The most sophisticated of the three varieties (in terms of activation), these beacons also feature both manual and automatic activation. The main difference between them and the other types of EPIRBs, however, is that are stored in ‘float-free’ housing which releases the beacon allowing it to float to the water’s surface when the vessel capsizes to a depth of 1 to 4 metres.

Where sea conditions permit, the deployment of EPIRBs in the water, away from the vessel, allows for the strongest transmission and the best chance of detection. Therefore, devices that activate automatically and can float offer the best chance of rescue.
In addition, the simple fact that they leave their brackets on their own and activate automatically means float-free EPIRBS will alert authorities even in the event of the most serious emergencies where, for example, the people on-board are injured and unable to activate the EPIRB or the vessel is unexpectedly hit by a rogue wave and capsized.

New regulations
With all this in mind, in 2018, AMSA conducted extensive public consultation about float-free EPIRBs. As a result, the body announced changes to the National Standard for Commercial Vessels (NSCV) that will come into effect from 1 January 2019.

From this date, a two-year transition period will begin. Then, from 1 January 2021 new requirements for float -free EPIRBs will become mandatory.
In short, all domestic commercial vessels will have to carry float-free EPIRBs, apart from those listed below which can continue to carry their current EPIRB.

  • Vessels that are less than 12 metres with level flotation and are operating between 2 nautical miles out to C waters (restricted offshore operations within 30 nautical miles from the baseline of the Australian mainland, or similar distances to other islands, etc.)
  • Vessels that are less than 12 metres in length with level flotation; and are operating in smooth and partially smooth waters (D and E waters).
  • Coastal life rafts

In addition, AMSA has announced that, in the case of vessels that are less than 7.5 metres, during the transition period, it will consider putting in place a generic equivalent solution (GES) to provide alternative options for owners of vessels less than 7.5 metres with level flotation operating in offshore waters (B and C waters).

These exceptions acknowledge that, for the above vessels, the benefits that mandatory float-free EPIRBs deliver don’t apply to the same degree, mainly because of the small size of the vessels.

In all other cases, float-free EPIRBS will ensure that Australian domestic commercial vessels are as safe as practically possible and that, where accidents do occur, authorities will be quickly alerted, and help will soon be at hand.

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