FISH SAFE: EPIRBs – A cautionary tale for fishermen

In early August, the US Coast Guard District 17 in Anchorage, AK reported that roughly 16 false EPIRB activations since October 2018 had cost taxpayers about $534,000 — or close to an average of $33,400 per false activation. 

The actual cost of a false activation depends on the context of the false activation and how much search and rescue has to be performed in order to confirm the activation was false.

If it is a matter of NOAA or the Coast Guard calling the EPIRB owner to confirm “no sign of distress” then the cost is relatively low.

But, if the USCG has to deploy a Jayhawk helicopter, a C-130, or a boat, the costs per hour are roughly $10,000, $15,000 and $5,500, respectively.

That’s a lot of money for what could easily be an accidental activation.


How EPIRBs work

First, all new, used, or newly acquired US-coded 406 MHz EPIRBs must be registered with NOAA as required by law.

This registration is definitely not like the simple registration of a new refrigerator or household appliance.

An EPIRB registration identifies not only the owner, but also emergency contacts, and includes the name of the vessel with which the beacon is associated.

When any of the registration information changes, the EPIRB owner must update the registration.

Here is the link for the NOAA registration website: https://www.sarsat.noaa.gov/beacon.html.


Why register?

The EPIRB, when activated, sends a latitude and longitude location to NOAA and the Coast Guard Command Center and identifies the vessel and vessel owner. 

This message initiates a protocol that leads to potentially extensive Coast Guard search and rescue (SAR) activities.

It is therefore critical that each EPIRB be properly registered and be responsibly de-registered when taken out of service.


Test and train

To be sure that the EPIRB will perform when needed, it should tested periodically.

All EPIRBs include a test mode protocol.

If the test mode directions are followed, there is no false activation.  But, if not followed, a false activation can result.

I know, because I have been guilty of an accidental activation during testing myself.

And, embarrassingly, all my emergency contacts knew about my mistake before NOAA was able to reach my cell phone on the Maine coast.

Train.  Yes, train.

The captain and all crew must be trained in how to properly activate and test the vessel’s EPIRB and any personal EPIRBs on board.

This is essential to proper use of the beacon, especially in high-stress, emergency conditions.


False activations

Table1 shows data from Coast Guard District 1 — which covers the New England states, New York and northern New Jersey – during the period from Jan. 2017 to Aug. 6 of this year.

Clearly, the most false activations were attributed to accidental activation and the owner was able to confirm a false alarm or no sign of distress when contacted.

In five cases the owner had thrown the EPIRB away and it had self-activated from a dumpster or landfill.

Another 10 EPIRBs were sold with the vessel, then thrown away, or lost, when the vessel was sold.

Tracking down these EPIRBs takes Coast Guard time and money.

In two cases the EPRIB fell or was washed overboard, and in four cases the vessel was out of the water, at the pier, or the EPIRB was activated while at home.

Single EPIRB activations were attributed to owner deceased, EPIRB lost, EPIRB stolen, EPIRB recovered from sunk vessel and thrown away, and one in which a USCG investigation revealed no distress.


TABLE 1: District 1 False EPIRB Activations from Jan. 1, 2017 through Aug. 6, 2019

Reasons given for false activation 2017





to 8-6-19


Owner confirmed false alarm, accidental activation, no sign of distress 8 15 9
Owner threw away 2 3
Sold/sold and thrown away 8 1
Sold boat, unable to find EPIRB 1
Deceased 1
EPIRB fell or was washed overboard 2
F/V out of water or at pier 3
EPIRB at home 1
EPIRB stolen 1
Unable to locate EPIRB 1
F/V sank, EPIRB recovered, thrown away 1
Investigation showed no sign of distress 1


If we assume that 32 of the total 58 (55%) accidental activations were quickly resolved and required minimum staff and asset time, that leaves 26 of 58 (or about 45%) of the accidental activations requiring deployment of some Coast Guard staff or assets in order to resolve the false activations.

At an average of $333,400  per activation (based on the District 17 costs) this could have resulted in a cost to taxpayers of $868,400 over 2.6 years.

At this rate, $334,000 could have been saved per year, if all EPIRBs had been properly de-registered or decommissioned according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Admittedly, perhaps this cost is an upper limit.  But it still seems safe to conclude, conservatively, the costs could have easily approached $250,000 per year, if not more.

This article is meant to call attention to the fact that every EPIRB activation has to be investigated and resolved to the satisfaction of the Coast Guard.

We can help them immensely by registering our EPIRB units, re-registering when the information or ownership changes, and by following the manufacturer’s directions when testing and disposing of the units.

Ann Backus, MS, is the director of outreach for the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health in Boston, MA.  She may be reached by phone at (617) 432-3327.



•  Register your EPIRB by web, mail, or fax when you purchase it.  Go to < HYPERLINK https://www.sarsat.noaa.gov/beacon.html>.

  Re-register when your information changes (new boat, sold boat, sold EPIRB, etc.).

  Test and dispose of the EPIRB according to manufacturer’s directions.