The Differences Between EPIRBs and PLBs

In this shrinking world of ever-improving communications and near-universal connectivity, there is still such a thing as genuine wilderness. Whether by choice or as part of their jobs, people do sometimes still find themselves off-the-grid; out of range of normal communication channels and far from emergency services.

Adventurers and workers generally find their way out of these remote locations and back home without a problem.

But what happens if there is a problem? What if they become hurt, lost, or incapacitated? Not matter how well-prepared you are, in remote locations emergency situations can escalate quickly. There can be a fine line between a near miss and life and death situation.

Those who venture into remote locations need a way to call for help in case of such an emergency. The only way to ensure you can do this is by always carrying an emergency beacon.

These devices use satellite communications to alert the relevant authorities of those in distress. They allow these authorities to accurately pinpoint the location of the distress signal and launch a rescue mission.

The two types of emergency beacons
The most common types of Emergency beacons can be divided into two broad categories, emergency position-indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs) and personal locator beacons (PLBs).

EPIRBs are designed specifically for maritime applications. They quickly alert authorities as to the whereabouts of distressed vessels and their crews, while PLBs (as their name suggests) alert authorised as to the whereabouts of individuals. PLBs are suitable for use in a range of applications, including bush walking, 4×4 driving and remote work. Though they are not specifically designed for use in maritime applications, some people do use them on boats, however they do not satisfy mandatory carriage requirements for vessels travelling further than 2Nm off-shore in Australia.

The first difference between the two types of emergency beacons is their size and weight. Because they are designed to be carried by people who are walking out in the wilderness, PLBs are smaller and lighter than EPIRBs, which are intended to always be carried on vessels. Size and weight are not huge considerations for the latter and they are therefore larger than PLBs, which aren’t much bigger than mobile phones.

The size of EPIRBs is also due to current legislation, which requires them to not only be waterproof but to float upright when transmitting in water. PLBs are also waterproof, however unlike EPIRBs, current legislation does not require them to remain upright while floating. This means they can be smaller and more compact.

As you might expect, this extra portability comes with some trade-offs. For example, while PLBs are more convenient and easier to carry, once activated they will continue to transmit for a minimum of 24 hours. This battery life is about half that of EPIRBs which, due to a difference in Standards, must transmit for a minimum of 48 hours after activation.

Both types of emergency beacons utilise satellite technology to pinpoint the locations of distressed vessels/ individuals. They operate by sending coded messages on the 406 MHz distress frequency which is relayed via the Cospas-Sarsat global satellite system. Following activation, geostationary satellites rapidly detect the HexID or Unique Identification Number (UIN) of the beacon and transfer it to the relevant authority via a Local User Terminal (LUT). While this obviously varies from country to country, in Australia this is the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Canberra. As the next step in the emergency process, the JRCC contacts the designated emergency contact as per the devices registration. This is another difference between the two common types of beacons. For EPIRBS, registration is made under the name of a boat, whereas for PLBs registration is made to an individual. This is significant because, in the case of EPIRBs, it gives rescuers an idea of what type of vessel they are looking for as well as the number of people who are likely to be on board. In the case of PLBs, the initial assumption would be that the search involves just one person.

More often than not trips to remote locations proceed without incident and those who take them return home safely. However, the stakes are high for those who venture off the grid. If they have no way of communicating with emergency services, they are taking a real risk. EPIRBS and PLBs don’t remove the possibility of accident or injury, but they dramatically increase the chances of survival if something does go wrong.

GME, a designer and manufacturer of world-class radio communication equipment, offers a full range of EPIRBs and PLBs. 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.