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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 exact location.

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).

So, this summer, when a safety device promising peace of mind at a price that’s a fraction of the cost of existing devices came on the market, it was pretty hard not to take notice.

The TracMe 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.

TracMe 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 locator beacon.”

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.

Leaving 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.

However, 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.

TracMe’s 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.’”

“The 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 Guard regulations.

“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.

In fact, 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, “The term ‘personal locator beacon’ applies to TracMe and a variety of other beacons including those which link to satellites and others which do not.”

Patricia Smith, spokesperson for TracMe, told BoatU.S., “The TracMe is licensed by the FCC specifically as a personal locator beacon.”

“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 satellite beacon.”

“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 more.

“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 says.

The company stresses that alerting rescuers after the fact eliminates the false alarms that safety experts acknowledge are common with EPIRBs and PLBs.

Markle 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 this way.

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 frequency.

“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.


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.

At 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 or by calling 1-888-66-EPIRB (37472).

(c) Copyright BoatU.S. Magazine, November 2007

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