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EPIRB: What are they, cost & which one should I buy?

An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon is invaluable last-resort equipment when travelling in the outback. image credit: ARB/Offroad Images

When you’re out in the bush or at sea and you’re lost or someone in your group has suffered life-threatening injuries and all of your other forms of communication – mobile phone, satellite phone – are of no use in the moment because of signal limitations, loss or equipment malfunctions, and you need assistance as soon as possible, an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) is your best bet for rescue. But remember: an emergency beacon should only be used as a last resort, after you’ve tried to send a distress alert by phone, radio or other direct communication and exhausted all other options – in other words, two-way communications are not available.

An EPIRB should be robust, like this GME MT600G. image credit: EPIRBhire An EPIRB should be robust, like this GME MT600G. image credit: EPIRBhire

What is an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon)?

An EPIRB is an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon that can help search and rescue authorities pinpoint your position in an emergency. Basically, it’s a portable electronic device that, once activated, emits a continuous and distinctive radio distress signal for at least 48 hours. EPIRBs are often referred to as distress beacons or emergency beacons because that is their primary function.

EPIRBs are intended for usage, in order of suitability, for maritime, land and air expeditions.

EPIRBs are used by bush-walkers, campers, four-wheel drivers, modern-day explorers, as well as those onboard domestic and commercial marine vessels. 

An EPIRB with GPS, in-built GPS, is ideal as it will help first responders find you. And personal EPIRBs should also float.

Some EPIRBs are manually activated so you’d take it out of its cradle or bracket, make sure the antenna is upright, open the switch cover and press the switch underneath it, close the cover and then attach the EPIRB to yourself, if needed, using its safety line.

Some EPIRBs activate automatically upon contact with water, but those are marine vessel-based beacons.

An EPIRB has an estimated minimum 48 hours of operation during which it will continuously transmit a signal after it has been activated.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) states that: “After activating your beacon, position it in a clear and open area. The aerial must be vertical pointing towards the sky, preferably with 180 degrees or more of visibility, away from trees, buildings, mountains, and vehicles. If possible, position it at the highest point if you are within a deep ravine or gully. This will ensure maximum effectiveness for detection.”

An EPIRB is a crucial part of your travel or recreational kit whether you’re adventuring in Australia or elsewhere in the world, because they’re really for anyone who spends time in the great outdoors and who may need emergency assistance. And – let’s face it – that’s every one of us.

If your trip is taking you and your family and/or friends away from populated areas for any length of time, err on the side of caution and hire or buy an EPIRB – that peace of mind then frees you up to fully enjoy your bush-walk, hike, 4WDing weekend away or boating trip.

If you’re boating you should hire or buy an EPIRB that will float when needed, or even a Float-Free Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons, which is a water-activated distress beacon fitted in a float-free bracket. A boat EPIRB is a worthwhile investment. “These beacons are designed to activate when a vessel capsizes to a depth of one to four metres,” the Australian Maritime Authority states. “They use a hydrostatic release function and a water-activated switch. They float to the surface of the water and transmit a distress signal."

An EPIRB is simply another layer of comms security if all else, including you marine radio if at sea, fails.

All Australian EPIRBs must be registered with AMSA. Registration is valid for two years after the date of issue and must be renewed before the device’s expiry date. 

Registration is free and can be completed online: Beacons and MMSI Register.

Note: 121.5 MHz distress beacons are no longer detected by satellite and are no longer licensed for use. You must have a 406 MHz distress beacon.

One of the popular Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) models, a KTi SA2G PLB. image credit: EPIRBhire One of the popular Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) models, a KTi SA2G PLB. image credit: EPIRBhire

What is a PLB?

A PLB is a Personal Locator Beacon and does the same job as an EPIRB: in the event of an emergency it can be activated and, in so doing, its continuous and distinctive radio distress signal will help emergency personnel to locate you. PLBs use the same Cospas-Sarsat satellite communication as EPIRBs. 

PLBs are intended for usage, in order of suitability, for land, maritime and air expeditions.

So, if a PLB essentially performs the same function as an EPIRB, what’s the difference between an EPIRB and a PLB?

Where an EPIRB is made to be carried in a vehicle, boat or on a motorbike, a PLB is for personal use, so it’s smaller and designed to be even more portable, so it can be carried in a hiker’s pocket, for instance, which is why PLBs have rapidly found favour with those who partake in land-based adventure activities, or paddle canoes or kayaks.

“In some cases, PLBs do not meet carriage requirements for maritime vessels travelling more than 2 nautical miles from the coast,” AMSA states. So if you’re going further off-shore than that, you’ll need an EPIRB. 

PLBs are compact and easy to carry, which makes them very appealing to bush-walkers, hikers and campers. image credit: EPIRBhire PLBs are compact and easy to carry, which makes them very appealing to bush-walkers, hikers and campers. image credit: EPIRBhire

Specific activation steps may differ slightly between different brands and models of PLB, but to activate a KTi SA2G PLB (pictured), as an example of the easy process involved, you’ll first disconnect its antenna and lift that up so it’s vertical, then uncover the ‘Activate’ button, and push and hold that button.

Once activated, a PLB has an estimated minimum 24 hours of operation during which it will continuously transmit a signal after it has been activated.

Choose a PLB with in-built GPS so rescue personnel can find you as soon as possible after you’ve activated the device.

There are also distress beacons called Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELTs) but they are designed to be fitted to aircraft.

 

How much does an EPIRB cost?

Any price is minimal when you consider the cost of not having one, and actually needing one.

You can buy an EPIRB and/or PLBs from many businesses including BCF, Anaconda, Whitworths and many more. Or you can hire one from a well-established company that specialises in this kind of equipment, such as EPIRBhire.

To buy, an EPIRB costs from about $200 (from Anaconda). EPIRBhire sells an ex-hire GME MT600G Boat EPIRB for $245. EPIRB registration is free. Prices vary though, so do your research and find the best EPIRB for you and your needs.

To hire, an EPIRB or PLB costs from $88 (seven-day minimum beacon hire from EPIRBhire); EPIRBhire will even sort out your temporary EPIRB registration.

All Australian EPIRBs must be registered with AMSA. Registration is valid for two years after date of issue and must be renewed before its expiry date.

Registration is free and can be completed online.

Free PLBs are available for loan in the Blue Mountains when you register your walk with NSW Police or NPWS). You can pick one up between 9am-4pm at the NPWS Office in Blackheath (Blue Mountains Heritage Centre) or after-hours from the Police Stations at Katoomba (Katoomba Police Station) and Springwood (Springwood Police Station).

Free PLBs are available for loan in Kosciuszko National Park when you register your walk with NSW Police or the NPWS. A refundable deposit is required when taking the PLB out on loan. Contact the Snowy Region Visitor Centre [https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/contact/Jindabyne.htm] for more information.

 

Which EPIRB should I buy?

It really depends on your travel plans – and whether you’re spending the lion’s share of your time on land or sea – but a good all-rounder is the GME MT600G GPS-enabled boat EPIRB (pictured at the top of this page). It has a 10-year battery, a quick-release mounting bracket and costs $245 from EPIRBhire.

GME is a well-established brand with more than 35 years experience engineering and manufacturing EPIRBs in Australia and they reckon their equipment has been responsible for hundreds of successful rescues in Australia and around the world. 

 

Things to remember:

EPIRB registration: All Australian EPIRBs must be registered with AMSA. Registration is valid for two years after date of issue and must be renewed before its expiry date. Registration is free and can be completed online.

Trip registration: Register your trip itinerary with the relevant authorities (eg. the NPWS office of the national park you’re bush-walking through and/or camping in), so if your beacon is activated rescue personnel can refer to your itinerary and quickly track you down.

EPIRB battery life: According to AMSA, emergency beacon batteries last for between five to 10 years. Check the expiry date and seriously consider if the unit will transmit properly during an emergency situation. To be on the safe side, buy a new GPS-equipped beacon.

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