For boaters who venture far from safe harbors or like to head out when the weather is sketchy, there’s a piece of equipment they all have or should have that they hope they’ll never use. The EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon), with its new and unscratched veneer, typically sits peacefully unbothered in a “ditch bag” — a symbol and instrument for ultimate distress.

In the event of a disaster, when all is lost and a skipper has run through all of his or her choices, the Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon is akin to making a 911 call in the most remote and uncomfortable circumstances.

According to the United States Coast Guard the first emergency systems were put into place in the early 1970s for use in the field of aviation, but soon after, the EPIRB was developed for the marine industry.

While these early models had their limitations, the technology has steadily grown through the decades, making search-and-rescue infinitely more possible and successful.

Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons employing the COSPAS/SARSAT satellite system operating on the 121.5/243 MHz frequencies have been the standard for decades. These units would relay the signal to one of 30 ground stations referred to as Local User Terminals (LUTs). These, in turn, would pass information on to the Mission Control Center for that region and, finally, local search- and-rescue units would be notified, according to the Coast Guard.

While this technology saved many lives through the years, it too, had its problems. There were many false alarms and lost signals associated with the older models, and they were not very effective in the Southern Hemisphere.

Today Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon technology has moved forward once again with the advent of 406 MHz EPIRBs, also known as Category 1 beacons. These upgraded units have addressed the negative issues of the former version and therefore have rendered them useless.

As of February 1st next year, the older EPIRB will not be monitored by rescue agencies.

“After February 1, 2009,Ýthe older model EPIRBs will no longer be monitored by satellite, and are likely to go completely undetected in an emergency,” says Anthony Turner, chief of External Communications in the National Department of Public Affairs for the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary. “Only distress alerts from 406 MHz beacons will continue to be detected and processed by search-and-rescue satellites worldwide.”

For those who will be needing to replace their old EPIRB with the Category 1 model, Turner recommends going the extra mile and buying a unit with built-in GPS (Global Positioning System) tracking, which he believes will assist rescue organizations all the more for a successful pickup.

“The 406 MHz signal sent by the newer EPIRBs when a mariner encounters distress are picked up by the COSPAS/ SARSAT satellite constellation, which determines the EPIRBs position through triangulation,” says Turner. “EPIRBs with embedded GPS are even more helpful in quickly finding a distressed boater. With GPS coordinates, the position of distress is pinpointed almost immediately. Without GPS, it may take two or three satellite passes to come up with a good triangulated position.”

According to the Coast Guard, the 406 beacons are vastly superior in the following ways:

— They transmit a digital signal that allows the position of a stricken vessel or person in the water to be relayed to rescuers more quickly, and with better accuracy.

— Very few signals received from 121.5/243 MHz beacons turn out to be real emergencies. The older equipment is prone to accidental triggering and other failures.

— They transmit unique identification information on the owner or vessel the beacon is registered to with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

For this last reason, the Coast Guard is adamant about reminding boaters with EPIRBs to register the units with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and also add the 406 EPIRB to the owner’s ship radio license, per Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations.

“Only about 70 percent of all 406 MHz EPIRBs are registered by their owners,” the Coast Guard states on its Web site. “Therefore, the major advantages of using this type of device are lost to 30 percent of all users. Proper registration of your 406 MHz satellite EPIRB may save your life as well as save you from possible violations and fines of up to $10,000 in cases of false activation due to hoax or gross negligence.

“Registration data also includes points of contact, including the vessel owner as well as several alternate people the Coast Guard can contact when a distress signal is received. An attempt will be made to verify a signal’s authenticity and to obtain as much information on the vessel as possible prior to mounting a full-scale search-and-rescue mission.”

According to the Coast Guard Auxiliary, registration is free and can be done on the Internet at www.beaconregistration.noaa .gov or it can be mailed or faxed to NOAA. Information, (888) 212-7283 (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. This registration information is available only to authorized search-and-rescue personnel.