Mixed Signals on Rescue Device
Boaters and others whose lifestyles take them off the beaten
track have some very effective high-tech ways to communicate
in case of emergency. VHF radios provide coverage within about
20 miles of shore and cell phones a great deal less, but nothing
beats an EPIRB or its newer version, the Personal Locator Beacon
(PLB), for pinpoint accuracy when it comes to transmitting
distress calls and leading search and rescue teams to your
EPIRBs and PLBs are small radio beacons that
transmit signals monitored by search and rescue stations
via a global system of satellites. It is recommended that boaters
traveling outside of VHF range carry a 406-MHz EPIRB onboard
their vessel. PLBs, on the other hand, are worn by an individual.
Each device has a unique identifier number that makes it
possible to identify the source of the emergency transmission,
so that rescuers know what vessel to look for and the identity
of the carrier. Transmissions from EPIRBs and PLBs prompt immediate
search and rescue responses.
The technology that makes these devices so effective also
makes them expensive. Prices for EPIRBs start at around $900.
PLBs cost only slightly less, making either device a significant
investment when going far offshore only once in a blue moon
(see below box, BoatU.S. EPIRB Rental Program).
summer, when a safety device promising peace of mind at a
a fraction of the cost of existing devices came on the market,
it was pretty hard not to take notice.
Personal Locator Beacon, manufactured by TracMe Beacons Pty.
Ltd., in Victoria, Australia, is smaller than a deck of cards
and light enough to be worn on a key chain or attached to
a belt loop. Selling for $150, it costs less than a quarter
of the price of other Personal Locator Beacons that rely
on a global network of satellites. That’s because
the TracMe beacon relies entirely on Channel 1, the Family
Radio Services (FRS) frequency used by walkie-talkies. TracMe
signals are not relayed by satellite.
FRS is limited to two-way voice communications over very
short distances, generally less than one-half mile. It is used
by families or small groups to communicate while on group outings
when group members are fairly close together.
literature and its web site make clear the device’s
limitations, but TracMe’s use of the term “personal
locator beacon” combined with its low price has safety
experts worried. The FCC and the U.S Coast Guard recently requested
that TracMe Beacons stop calling its device a “personal
This has not, however, deterred the maker of TracMe.
“If a search and rescue team knows that you have a
TracMe, they can determine your itinerary and whereabouts and
quickly narrow down the area of their search as well as find
you sooner because of the voice signal emitting from your TracMe
Personal Locator Beacon,” according to the company’s
web site. The unit emits a recorded voice message — either “Help…Emergency” or “Mayday…Mayday” — approximately
every 15 seconds, but it does not allow two-way communication.
a trip itinerary with someone before setting off into the
wild or onto the water is always a good idea and is at the
top of TracMe’s list of recommendations in its
owner’s manual. Ideally, friends or family will notify
search and rescue teams when travelers are overdue. Itinerary
in hand, searchers can then home in on the general area and
monitor Channel 1 for TracMe’s signal.
according to the manufacturer, the unit’s
transmission range with a standard antenna is about 1,000 yards
on the ground, so rescuers have to be pretty close to be able
to help. Airborne rescuers can pick up Channel 1 transmissions
four to eight miles away. A high gain antenna will extend the
transmission range, according to the company.
batteries enable it to continue transmitting for up to seven
days. In comparison, EPIRBs must transmit for a minimum of
48 hours and PLBs for a minimum of 24 hours. TracMe is a
one-time-use device, while EPIRBs and PLBs can be reused.
With or without an itinerary, the TracMe beacon is probably
not a good choice for boaters venturing beyond small bodies
of water. Disabled boats may drift far off course, making the
trip itinerary worthless. More troubling, if an accident occurs
long before the expected return date, victims could wait days
before searchers are notified.
“The U.S. Coast Guard and the FCC feel that the use
of the PLB term is a misrepresentation of the device and could
result in confusion with safety-of-life Part 95K PLBs,” which
by FCC definition transmit via satellite on the 406-MHz frequency,
states a memo to the company from the FCC. Devices like TracMe,
which transmit on Channel 1, are defined by the FCC as “95B” devices.
The FCC memo asks TracMe Beacons to “modify the description
to something other than ‘personal locator beacon.’”
term ‘personal locator beacon’ is
used in the U.S. to indicate a satellite device,” according
to Robert Markle, president of the Radio Technical Commission
for Maritime Services (RTCM), an international nonprofit scientific,
professional and educational organization that studies maritime
navigation and communication policy issues, regulatory changes
and develops technical standards. RCTM’s standards are
included in Federal Communications Commission and U.S. Coast
“The TracMe beacon doesn’t have the power, the
battery life and there’s not necessarily somebody listening
[when a TracMe emergency signal is activated],” Markle
says. He stresses that the term “personal locator beacon” is
not copyrighted, so it can be used to describe any device that
emits a signal.
this is precisely why TracMe uses the term and has told the
FCC that it intends to continue doing so. The company is
adamant that “personal locator beacon” is
a generic term that can be used to describe anything that
transmits a distress signal.
“It is a beacon which specifically emits a signal to
assist in locating a lost or incapacitated person — hence
the term Personal Locator Beacon,” according to the company’s
web site, www.tracme.com. “The term ‘personal locator
beacon’ applies to TracMe and a variety of other beacons
including those which link to satellites and others which do
Smith, spokesperson for TracMe, told BoatU.S., “The
TracMe is licensed by the FCC specifically as a personal locator
“This question has come up before,” Smith continues. “I
wonder if people have the same confusion between a cell phone,
a cordless phone at home and their landline? Or would rush
into a store, plop down $150 and not look at what they are
buying when seeking out a personal locator beacon?
“TracMe continues to emphasize the personal responsibility
which comes with venturing outdoors in the materials which
are packaged with the beacon,” she says. TracMe packaging
includes a dashboard itinerary card and a reminder card to
leave behind itinerary information with friends or relatives.
The company’s users manual warns that “the TracMe
Personal Locator Beacon will not automatically instigate a
search and rescue when it is activated. This is not a 406-MHz
“The intention of this device is to assist a rescue
team to locate you in an emergency situation after they have
been notified of your situation. You must therefore let others
know where you intend to go, and when you intend to return
and that you intend to activate your TracMe beacon in an emergency,” according
to the user’s manual.
“Because the manufacturer is using the same PLB nomenclature,
you might be tempted to believe it has similar capabilities
to a real PLB,” says Doug Ritter, executive director
of the nonprofit Equipped to Survive Foundation, which researches
and reviews safety equipment and disseminates information about
search and rescue and emergency preparedness.
“Given the lower price, weight and size of the TracMe
device, you might be tempted to purchase it as a distress beacon.” Ritter
continues, “A distress beacon that doesn’t notify
someone you are in distress and provide location information
is no distress beacon. TracMe is simply a homing beacon, nothing
“This transmission does not serve as a distress alert,
unless someone quite close just happens to be monitoring or
talking on Channel 1, unlikely in most cases,” Ritter
The company stresses that alerting rescuers after the fact
eliminates the false alarms that safety experts acknowledge
are common with EPIRBs and PLBs.
estimates that 95% of all signals from EPIRBs are “false
alerts” but he explains, “The system can pretty
well deal with them.” Since EPIRBs and PLBs must be registered
with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — no
such requirement for the TracMe device — search and rescue
personnel first check by phone or radio before launching full-scale
rescue efforts. Almost two-thirds of all false alerts are eliminated
Older EPIRBs that transmit on 121.5 MHz were banned from
use January 1, 2007 because they are not registered and false
alarms cannot be eliminated by a phone call. By early 2009,
satellites will no longer process distress signals from this
“Since people still have 121 models out in the field
and the U.S. Coast Guard is still monitoring the signal I would
assume that they are still getting false alarms,” according
to David Carter, manager of the BoatU.S. EPIRB rental program. “Under
the 406 system, false alarms are minimal” and will become
even less of a problem in the future.
It goes without saying that deliberate false alarms are illegal
and punishable by stiff fines and jail sentences.
BoatU.S. EPIRB RENTAL PROGRAM
Since 1998, the nonprofit BoatU.S. Foundation for Boating
Safety and Clean Water has made available as a safety
service a limited supply of 406-MHz Emergency Position
Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB) for rental. Each year,
about 600 boaters obtain EPIRBs through the program.
a cost of $40 per week, with a maximum rental of six
weeks, itís a very affordable
way to obtain protection for the occasional long-distance cruise. More information
about the program is available online at BoatUS.com/foundation/EPIRB or by
calling 1-888-66-EPIRB (37472).
Copyright BoatU.S. Magazine, November 2007