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Emergency signals go digital only Feb. 1

Digital 406 MHz Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (Coast Guard photo/Petty Officer 3rd Class Connie Terrell)

Digital 406 MHz Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (Coast Guard photo/Petty Officer 3rd Class Connie Terrell)


Out with the old, in with the new; emergency distress signals go digital
Story by Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael De Nyse, U.S. Coast Guard

Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) have helped to save countless lives at sea. EPIRBs are portable radio beacons designed to alert the Coast Guard of a vessel’s position in the event of an emergency.

Beginning Feb. 1, the U.S. Coast Guard and other search and rescue agencies will only receive distress alerts broadcasting the digital 406 MHz signal.

The digital 406 MHz EPIRB’s signal is 50 times more powerful than the analog 121.5/243 MHz beacon boaters have been using for many years.

“This transition will reduce the number of false distress alerts and allow search and rescue resources to give real alerts the attention they deserve,” said Lt. Danielle Renoud, a search and rescue coordinator at the Coast Guard District 14 Joint Rescue Coordination Center in Honolulu. “The 406 MHz beacon is superior to the 121.5/243 MHz beacon because the location information is much more accurate and the signal carries registration information with it.”

406 MHz EPIRBs broadcast a unique code that identifies each vessel. Proper registration of an EPIRB will make it much more effective during an emergency. When a 406 MHz beacon signal is received, search and rescue personnel can retrieve information from a registration database. This includes the beacon owner’s contact information, emergency contact information, and the vessel’s identifying characteristics.

EPIRBs fall into two categories: Category I units are designed to float free from a sinking boat and will automatically activate themselves; Category II units must be manually activated by someone on the vessel. There are new units on the market that now include built-in Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers. The GPS-EPIRBs broadcast more accurate position information about the vessel.

“Our hope is that all mariners and pilots will carry a 406 MHz beacon and keep all contact information updated on the beacon registration Web site,” said Renoud. “Doing these two things will ensure the best possible chance of rescue during an emergency.”

The regulation applies to all Class A, B, and S 121.5/243 MHz EPIRBs. It does not affect 121.5/243 MHz man overboard devices that are designed to work directly with a base alerting unit only and not with the satellite system.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintains a database for EPRIB registrations. In the event a beacon is triggered, the contact information is used to call the owner’s home or business. This information is critical for search and rescue coordinators to find those in distress as quickly as possible. Properly registered EPIRBs can significantly take the search out of search and rescue.

To register an EPIRB, visit: or call 1-888-212-SAVE. Registrations must be updated at least every two years or when information, such as emergency contact phone numbers, changes.

The Coast Guard urges those who work and play on the water to keep proper safety equipment onboard vessels at all times. Coast Guard-approved life jackets, flares, fire extingushers, and a VHF-FM radio are just a few examples of life-saving equipment every boater should own.

For more information about EPIRBs, visit:

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