Coast Guard encourages boaters to go digital with new emergency beacons

PORTSMOUTH, Va. – The Coast Guard is encouraging mariners and aviators to make the switch to digital 406 MHz Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) to keep pace with search and rescue technology.

Beginning Feb. 1, 2009, the Coast Guard and other search and rescue personnel will only receive distress alert broadcasts using digital 406 MHz EPIRBs. Search and rescue satellites will no longer process older model analog EPIRBs that only transmit on 121.5 or 243 MHz.

The 406 EPIRB’s signal is 50 times more powerful than the 121.5 beacon’s, allowing satellites to better detect its signal and provide a more accurate search area for rescue crews.

Furthermore, a GPS-embedded 406 EPIRB can shrink a search area to about 100 yards and can pinpoint the position of a distressed mariner within minutes.

Additionally, the number of false alerts with digital beacons is significantly lower than analog beacons.

Satellites are not capable of distinguishing between beacon and non-beacon sources using analog frequencies. With analog beacons, the only way to determine if an alert is an actual emergency is to send rescue crews to the area, which costs thousands of dollars, takes resources away from actual emergencies and puts the lives of responders at risk needlessly.

EPIRB owners are required by law to provide emergency contact information and a vessel description by registering their beacons with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This allows search and rescue personnel to quickly confirm if a distress signal is real, and identify who and what type of boat or aircraft to look for. It also means accidental activation of an EPIRB may be resolved quickly with a phone call to the owner.

EPIRB users can register their beacons in the U.S. 406 MHz Beacon Registration Database at: or by calling 1-888-212-SAVE. Beacon registrations must be updated at least every two years or when information such as emergency contact phone numbers and other vital information changes. Registration information is only available to authorized search and rescue personnel.

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