Prevent False Alerts
Note: if you have accidentally activated your beacon but do not need assistance, please contact the appropriate RCC right now (day or night) to cancel the search efforts. For ELTs and PLBs, contact the Air Force RCC at 1-800-851-3051. For EPIRBs, contact the U.S. Coast Guard at 1-855-406-USCG (8724).
Only You Can
OK, so we weren't the first ones to come up with this slogan, but what Smokey says about forest fires also applies to EPIRBs, ELTs and PLBs. The vast majority of false alerts generated within the Cospas-Sarsat system originate from beacon users. This is by no means to suggest that most mariners, aviators and other beacon users are careless. In fact, most of these folks are meticulous and conscientious. The false alert problem arises from a lack of knowledge. The solution lies in educating users about the negative effect of false alerts on the system and how to prevent them.
The following are some suggestions on how you (yes, you) can prevent false alerts. By doing so, you will increase the effectiveness of the very system your life may someday rely on! We cannot stress the importance of this enough. Responding to false alerts can cause large delays in responding to real emergencies. Unnecessary deployments also put the lives of search and rescue personnel at risk. Although Cospas-Sarsat is a high-tech, automated system, large volumes of false alerts can cost valuable minutes to people in real distress. Every little bit does help! So please, read the recommendations below and follow them. Above all, use common sense.
- Always test your PLB in strict accordance with manufacturers’ recommendations. Most PLB activation switches have a test position. This test position allows the entire unit (electronics, battery and antenna) to be tested without generating a false alert.
- Ensure that your beacon is registered with NOAA. This does nothing to reduce false alert rates, but does have a dramatic effect on the impact of a false alert. If the PLB is properly registered, the situation will be resolved with a phone call most of the time. It will also help speed rescue in an actual distress. It's free, easy, and it's the law, so please register all of your beacons.
- Maintain your PLB. Ensure that the batteries are within their expiration date and that all manufacturer recommendations are followed.
For 406 MHz ELTs (aviation):
- Always tune in 121.5 MHz on your comm radio before shutting down. If you hear a swept tone (sounds like a siren), then immediately switch off your ELT. Newer ELTs have a cockpit mounted switch, but for most, you will need to access the unit itself in the empennage. Once you have stopped the transmission, immediately dial your Flight Service Station (FSS) 1-800-WXBRIEF and inform them of your situation. Trust me, these folks will be glad to hear from you. Chances are, you will have secured your ELT before satellite passes locate it, and the FSS will not even get an alert message. If however, an alert was generated, you will have just saved them a lot of work and the taxpayers some money as well.
- If you are buying a new aircraft, or updating the panel in an old one, consider purchasing a 406 MHz ELT. Although more expensive, these units give you a myriad of advantages, not the least of which is fewer false alerts.
- Maintain your ELT regularly. At a recent aviation event in Alaska, free ELT testing was offered. Of the ELTs tested, fewer than half worked properly. Most of these were attributed to dead batteries. Low batteries can cause erroneous signals and generate false alerts. Conversely, false alerts can cause low batteries. So, make sure you've got strong batteries in your ELT. Your life may depend on it.
For 406 MHz EPIRBs (maritime):
- Always test your EPIRB in strict accordance with manufacturers’ recommendations. Most EPIRB activation switches have a test position. This allows the entire unit (electronics, battery and antenna) to be tested without generating a false alert.
- Ensure that your beacon is registered with NOAA. This does nothing to reduce false alert rates, but does have a dramatic effect on the impact of a false alert. If the EPIRB is properly registered, the situation will be resolved with a phone call most of the time. It will also help speed rescue in an actual distress. It's free, easy, and it's the law, so please register your EPIRBs.
- Affix your registration decal on the EPIRB so it can be easily read without taking the EPIRB out of its bracket. A surprising amount of false alerts are generated by people (sometimes Coast Guard safety inspectors) doing so to check the decal.
- Never remove the EPIRB from its bracket without first switching it to the "Off" position (unless of course, you're actually in distress). Also, never allow it to be removed by others. A lot of false alerts are generated by curious passengers. Another common source of false alerts are from crew members removing the EPIRB to paint behind it.
- Maintain your EPIRB. Ensure that the batteries are within their expiration date and that all manufacturer recommendations are followed.
- Any time that the EPIRB is not on the vessel, it should be switched off. This avoids the embarrassing experience of having SAR forces converge on the trunk of your car.
- Finally, realize that the Cospas-Sarsat satellites are very good at what they do, detecting emergency beacons. An activation of a 406 MHz EPIRB for just a few seconds will usually be detected. After a few minutes, it will usually be detected and located. This is good if you're in distress, but if you're not, you just generated a false alert.
Proper Beacon Disposal Helps Prevent False Alerts
At the end of the useful life of your 406 MHZ beacon, please ensure that you properly dispose of it. When this occurs, it is vital that you follow the manufacturers' guidance on how to properly disable your beacon to eliminate false activations. Most manufacturers recommend that you remove the beacon's battery when disposing of it to prevent false activations. False activations cause expensive disruption to Search and Rescue services and may endanger the lives of rescuers and unnecessarily divert limited SAR resources.
Once your beacon has been permanently disabled, the remaining parts (including the battery and electronics) should be disposed of in a manner that does not present a threat to the environment. In addition to containing traces of lithium, distress beacons may contain lead and brominated flame retardants, both in the housing material and circuit boards. Please do not simply discard the beacon along with residential garbage or in a community landfill. Please review your local laws and procedures for disposal of electronics and batteries or contact your beacon manufacturer for further guidance (this Cospas-Sarsat link provides manufacturer contact information).
After you have carefully disposed of your beacon, please update your registration at our website, NOAA Beacon Registration, to indicate this change in status. If you lack internet access or would prefer to mail, fax, or email your registration updates, please contact the SARSAT Beacon Registration Database Team for assistance:
Phone: 1.888.212.7283 (Toll-Free) or 301.817.4515
The bottom line is this: as with any piece of safety gear, it's only as good as the person operating it. Spend some time to familiarize yourself with your ELT, EPIRB or PLB. Ask yourself if and how it will work in a real situation, and know how to use it. Finally, know how to prevent false alerts and actively do so. Your efforts are certainly appreciated by us at NOAA and especially by those in distress!