Is an EPIRB Requirement on the Horizon?

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 02:06PM - Comments: (10)

Should boaters who travel more than three miles offshore in the U.S. or Great Lakes be required to carry  an EPIRB, a personal locator beacon, some other form of emergency locator beacon? That is the question that West Marine Vice President Chuck Hawley, vice-chairman of a task force set up by the National Boating Safety Advisory Council, asked recently in the West Marine newsletter. According to Hawley, the U.S. Coast Guard is contemplating such a carriage requirement, and the task force, along with other representatives of the search and rescue community, marine equipment manufacturers, and boating groups, are working to come up with their own recommendations.

Will EPIRBs be as ubiquitous as signal flares in the future?

Currently, boating safety laws in Australia require recreational boaters who travel more than two miles offshore to carry 406 MHz EPIRBs. While the Coast Guard has proposed tighter carriage requirements for U.S. recreational boaters in the past, these have generally been opposed by boating advocate groups like BoatUS. According to a recent article in Power and Motoryacht, BoatUS is taking no position on mandatory emergency beacons, awaiting the Coast Guard’s cost-benefit analysis. According to the article, the Washington, D.C., consulting firm BayFirst Solutions has drawn up a cost-to-benefit analysis for the Coast Guard that makes a strong case for mandatory beacons.

But what “emergency locator beacons” to use? The Coast Guard has poured about $1 billion into its new Rescue 21 distress-calling network aimed at providing direction-finding and filling gaps in coverage for DSC VHF distress calls. Could not a DSC distress call qualify as a "emergency locator beacon"? What about the current trend toward satellite emergency notification devices (SENDs), such as the SPOT locator, Cerberus, or the DeLorme InReach? The versatility of these newer devices have already led some to question the value of EPIRBs for the majority of boaters. Should a SPOT locator qualify as an "emergency locator beacon?"

In the West Marine newsletter article, Hawley describes the job that he and his fellow task force members face in making a cost-benefit analysis of the various options: “If you were in a position to create a regulation that would impact all boaters who go more than 3 nautical miles offshore, how would you maximize the life-saving potential while minimizing the cost to boaters? In our task force discussions, we generally look at the annual cost of the device (perhaps $25 in the case of a PLB) X the number of boats that would be outfitted (perhaps 500,000) compared to the lives saved annually (perhaps 100) and the value of that life (generally considered to be $5M or so). . . . If you use these values, you arrive at an annual benefit of $500M in lives saved at a cost of $12.5M, or a 1:40 cost-benefit ratio. Sounds like a good deal (presuming the numbers are right). Note that this analysis doesn’t include the benefit of reduced SAR costs due to shorter searches, possibly with fewer Coast Guard assets.”

The NBSAC strategic plan calls for fewer recreational boating deaths and injuries by 2016.

It is clear here that Hawley is giving a hypothetical example of how the task force looks at a cost-benefit analysis, since saving 100 lives per year with any distress-calling device seems highly unlikely. According to the National Boating Safety Advisory Council’s 2012-2016 National Recreational Boating Safety Program Strategic Plan, the goal is to reduce the number of deaths each year by about four deaths per year and the number of injuries by about 60 per year by 2016. Along with strengthening carriage requirements, the strategic plan outlines several means of achieving these overall safety goals, including boater certification, outreach, training, and more on-the-water education. Would not these measures have a greater impact on boater safety than an EPIRB requirement?

Ultimately, Hawley foresees the task force recommending a layered approach to any new requirements. Vessels operating from 3 to 10 nautical miles offshore, for example, would comply with a VHF radio equipped with DSC capability or some form of "emergency locator beacon," while those venturing more than 20 miles offshore would be required to carry an EPIRB, PLB, or some other type of approved emergency beacon.

Comments (10)

If you are a serious off shore sailor you should invest in a locator. The captain is responsible for his crew. At 3 miles my cell and GPs is still working. All these regulations just produce more broken laws, leave it up to the individual. Carl R

Posted by: CARL R | November 30, 2012 4:06 PM    Report this comment

I'd suggest that the USCG adopt a policy of requiring mandatory reimbursement for use of USCG assets in "avoidable" SAR incidents. "Avoidability" (assessment of circumstances) could be determined by an independent board of marine industry experts.

Imagine how quickly the casual boater would re-think an offshore excursion if they thought they might get hit with a bill for $3700/hour for a single response boat and $11,000/hour for an H-60 helicopter. Multiply those costs by multiple assets deployed for multiple hours; the result is a SIGNIFICANT cost ... and charge to the offending boater.

Posted by: PDWARREN | September 10, 2012 9:23 PM    Report this comment

Really !? only 3 miles out .... Wait, correct me if I'm wrong....there isn't even a MANDATORY requirement for boaters to have a VHF radio yet but you are going to require an EPIRB. Forgetting the ridiculous cost imposed, can you imagine all the false alarms and accidental EPIRB activations when every little boat that goes fishing a few miles off the Florida coast or Jersey shore, is forced to put one in their boat...... Why don't we start with a mandatory DSC VHF with integrated GPS first.... More cost effective and can be used for more than just Emergency calling.

Posted by: tsenator | August 23, 2012 7:02 PM    Report this comment

$3,000? Oops. Let me moderate my outrage a little--it's clearly been a while since I looked at the cost of these things. Cost is $500 to $1,500. Battery replacement, though, is $125 to $250 and has to be done every five years. And the big boy on the block, ACR, won't service units older than 12 years.
So you can buy an EPIRB, replace the battery at 5 and 10 years, and then buy a new one at 15. Total cheapest cost: $750 for 12 years, 15 years if you think you can convince the Coasties that 12 years is SERVICE life, not useful/effective life. (NB: I didn't include the cost of shipping in either dollars, hours, or general aggravation. It appears the lithium batteries qualify as hazardous materials.)
Is $750 ($50/year) too much? I can't fill my car for even once for $50.
I'd damn sure get one if I was to spend much time out of sight of land, or didn't have the sense to stay in if there's a threat of ugly weather. I moderate my behavior to accommodate my abilities and resources. I'm the one ultimately responsible for my failures to moderate correctly. I don't need the G to play the role of mommy.
It's just another nick along the path to death by a thousand cuts.

Posted by: LAWRENCE W | August 23, 2012 7:15 AM    Report this comment

I carry a GPS equipped EPIRB. After the initial cost, the upkeep cost is the mail-in refirb of the battery. (during which time you have NOTHING and can go NOWHERE) This is a real inconvenience and major cost. If we can be permitted to replace or re-charge our own batteries on the other side of the planet the annual cost of Barbie's clothes is managable.

I think '3' miles is absurd especially on the Great Lakes. We also have two radios with DSC and a Class B AIS transponder-receiver.

Posted by: MARK H | August 22, 2012 8:44 PM    Report this comment

Where does the government intervention end..?? Mandatory EPIRB's and all that jazz..?? What's next, government mandated protective eyewear for badmiton players..?? Helmets and mouth pieces for those who play volleyball on the beach..?? We boat because it's fun.. We sail because we love it.. I own a 16' aluminum v-hull boat with a 20hp outboard.. On flat days in the Gulf I troll out of sight of land.. The boat, motor and trailer cost $900.00.. Under that ridiculous law, I'd be required to have an EPIRB..?? (how much did you say they cost again..??).. Anyone that goes offshore takes their chances.. That's a part of the game.. Oh, I wonder, under that law would the girl that attempted to swim from Cuba to Key West this week be required to have an EPIRB strapped to herself..??

Posted by: Richard L | August 22, 2012 8:30 PM    Report this comment

Great. So now I'll need an $3,000 EPIRB to dump my head.

Why is it that every time the gov't "helps" me, I wind up a little worse off than I was before?

Posted by: LAWRENCE W | August 22, 2012 12:47 PM    Report this comment

As an offshore sailor in Southern California waters I carry a DSC/GPS enabled handheld VHF as a minimum. When I go offshore, I plan on carry an PLB (like a SPOT or DeLorme), but I'm on the fence about an EPIRB - I am an adventurer, I accept the risks I take, and I am uneasy asking our fine service members to risk their lives to come rescue my dumb-a## when I put myself in danger or become injured or ill... In short, I accept that outside help is days if not weeks away and I plan accordingly.

Posted by: JBWrites - | August 22, 2012 11:51 AM    Report this comment

The PLB is a neat devise, but considering the Coast Guard's investment in DSC, I would think any viable and cost effective program should center around the Rescue 21 ivestment. Considering that there are DSC hand held radios on the market,and hand held radios with GPS, and emergency beacon radio should should be a no brainer for near shore personal location,as well.

Posted by: Daniel B | August 22, 2012 10:47 AM    Report this comment

According to the USCG, the Rescue 21 antennas give them a 90+% reception of a 1-watt DSC signal from a transmitting antenna 6 feet above the water at a distance of 25nm. I think that it is far more cost effective to encourage the proper use of DSC than to require an EPIRB, especially at "near coastal" distances.

Posted by: TIMOTHY M | August 21, 2012 2:40 PM    Report this comment

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