SAFE-BOAT SMART-BOAT: Know, maintain, register your EPIRB

by Fred Mattera –

EPIRB requirements apply to all commercial fishing vessels operating more than three nautical miles from the coast of the US.  Vessels 36′ or greater in length must have on board a float-free, automatically activated Category 1

406 MHz EPIRB stowed where it can float free if the vessel sinks.

Vessels less than 36′ must have installed in a readily accessible location at or near the principal steering station either a manually activated Category 2 406MHz EPIRB or a float-free automatically activated Category 1 406MHz EPIRB.


A qualified Coast Guard-approved marine drill instructor, Fred Mattera of Point Judith, RI is the owner/president of North East Safety Training Co. (NESTCo), which conducts fishing vessel drills and inspections and basic safety training workshops.
A commercial fisherman for 40 years, Mattera is a member of the Commercial Fishing Safety Advisory Committee to the Coast Guard, and, since 1998, has been president of the Point Club, a fishing vessel mutual insurance group. He also has served on the board of directors for Sunderland Marine Mutual Insurance Co., the principal underwriter for the Point Club and more than 2,000 US fishing vessels, since 1998.

EPIRB stands for “emergency position indicating radio beacon.”  These devices are vital in distress situations, especially when communications have not been or can’t be established.

The EPIRB transmits at 406 MHz, a higher frequency that produces a strong signal.  This transmission is picked up by satellites and relayed to coastal stations, rescue aircraft, and ships that maintain around-the-clock watches.

Your EPIRB transmits a unique signal that lets authorities know it is coming from your vessel.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maintains a database of all EPIRBs carried on US boats, and you are required by law to register your EPIRB.

Proper registration makes it possible for the Coast Guard to reach the person you designate as an emergency contact when a distress signal is received.  With this information, the Coast Guard can quickly determine if a true emergency exists and initiate a search and rescue response if necessary.

NOAA clearly states, “Failure to register your beacon may delay a rescue response.”

After registering, you will receive a “NOAA registration decal” in the mail.  This decal needs to be affixed to your EPIRB.  Registration is free and must be renewed every two years from the date listed on your decal or whenever there is a change in ownership of a vessel or you replace your EPIRB.

You can easily register your EPIRB online at <www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov>.  Or you can print out the registration form from the website if you prefer to mail it in.

If you have any questions about registration or errors on your new or renewed registration form or decal, call (301) 817-4515 or toll free at 1-888-212-7283.  Remember to modify and/or be certain that your EPIRB is included on your FCC Station License.  Failure to do so can result in a civil penalty assessment by the FCC.


Common problems

I would like to point out several concerns I observe when I inspect vessel EPIRBs.  Each EPIRB has a UIN (unit identification number), made up of 15 letters and numerals, which looks like this:  ACDC0201E009123.

This UIN represents the unique signature of your vessel as identified in NOAA’s database and allows authorities to determine that it’s your vessel that’s in distress when a signal is received.

Alarmingly, about 30% of the vessels I have inspected in the last several years have had the wrong UINs, which means that if your EPIRB is activated, NOAA will not be able to identify your vessel by name.

All of the UIN errors I have found were corrected within 24 hours or less simply by calling the crackerjack staff at the NOAA EPIRB registration office.

Generally, the errors come about when people replace an old EPIRB with a new unit and get a renewal decal two years later with the old EPIRB UIN.  Other errors happen during data entry or because the owner’s handwriting is illegible on the renewal form.  It really is best to go online and type in your UIN – and double check to be sure it’s correct.

Also, sometimes captains mistakenly attach the decal to the outside of the shell casing of the unit rather than on the unit itself.  Read your EPIRB instructions, which will show you where it should go.

Lastly, since your decal expires every two years, please try to check the date and renew the decal in ample time.  Review the information on the new decal for accuracy and then attach it to the EPIRB.  Don’t leave the decal on the paperwork in the envelope inside your pilothouse drawer.


Steps to follow

Here are a few steps to follow to be sure your EPIRB works when you need it.

  • Read instructions – Read the instructions for mounting and operating your EPIRB carefully.  EPIRBs do not come shipped in the “ON” position.  It’s important to know the correct switch position to arm the EPIRB.
  • Locate with care – Mount your EPIRB in a location on your vessel that will allow it to float free in the event your vessel sinks.  Be sure to mount it where icing will be minimal.  Avoid locating it under an overhang or in a position where it can get hung up.
  • Check – Test your EPIRB once a month.  406 EPIRBs have an electronic self-check.  Make sure you follow the testing procedures in your manual.  All EPIRB tests should be entered in your logbook.  You are keeping a logbook, aren’t you?
  • Inspect – Check your EPIRB during rough sea conditions to make sure it’s not damaged or accidentally activated.
  • Demonstrate – Explain to all crewmembers how the EPIRB operates during routine drills and instructions.  And,
  • Maintain – Your EPIRB battery expires in five years, and there is an expiration date on the unit.  If your EPIRB was activated during an emergency or has had a false activation exceeding two hours, the battery must be replaced.  Most all EPIRBs require that a battery be replaced by an authorized servicing facility.

Category 1 406MHz EPIRBs require a hydrostatic release unit (HRU).  A disposable “Hammar H2O” type HRU includes a label that indicates the expiration month and year.  These HRUs are valid for two years from the date they are placed in service.


ACR concern

I want to point out a grave concern I have with ACR EPIRBs.  At least 90% of crewmembers I review this unit with immediately want to snap the arming switch all the way over to arm the unit.  However, when you push the switch past the vertical position, it won’t move.

Fishermen have a tendency to push something that doesn’t move harder and harder, usually until it breaks.  And, in this case, the switch will break.

Instead, when arming an ARC unit, place it in the vertical test position and then slide the switch to the left toward the middle of the unit.  Then you will be able to snap the switch down and arm the unit.

If you have an ACR unit, I suggest you check to see if you have made this common error.  Be sure your unit is actually armed.


Other thoughts 

Remember your EPIRB works best in the water because a better ground produces a stronger signal.  Some people suggest tying the EPIRB lanyard to the raft, but my fear is that, with an immersion suit on, your knot tying skills may be impaired.  Also, the twine is waxy, which means it can come undone and float away.

I suggest that you assign a crewman the responsibility of monitoring the EPIRB in an emergency.  The crewman should tie the lanyard around his wrist and tug on the line every five minutes to be sure it is still attached.

No piece of survival gear is foolproof and EPIRBs are no exception.  Activating your EPIRB may not result in an immediate rescue, but your survival and rescue depends on making good judgments and using good quality, well-maintained safety equipment.  If you need to use your EPIRB, remember this:  Turn it on and leave it on!

Fred Mattera