What emergency notification system should I carry?
Dear Boat Doctor,
I am interested in improving my onboard emergency gear. I have carried a personal EPIRB for years, but it feels inadequate. I have been looking at shipboard EPIRBs, but maybe I should be considering something else entirely.
Being prepared is a really good thing. Sailing is all about self-sufficiency, but sometimes you need to call for help.
An EPIRB is a good start, but not enough. In theory they are great: the EPIRB transmits an SOS to the satellites, the event is routed to a responder and help is on the way. The theory breaks down in practice and spurious EPIRB events are a real thing and tie up a lot of resources. These events are sometimes accidental and at times come from users hitting the red button at inappropriate times. As a result, the responders of the world have developed a practice where they qualify an event before deploying assets.
This qualification consists of a couple things. The most important is that the EPIRB is correctly registered and that shoreside contacts are correct and informed. Multiple alerts from shipboard devices further qualify a situation: multiple EPIRB signals plus an SOS from a personal communicator like SPOT will make you stand out amongst the noise of spurious EPIRB events.
Getting back to devices, there is very little difference between a personal EPIRB (a personal locating beacon known as a PLB) and a true EPIRB. EPIRBs have better battery life and have better environmental specifications. I think it is wise to carry a true EPIRB and perhaps a few PLBs, just in case of a device failure and to be able to trigger more than one at a time. Speaking of batteries, EPIRBs and PLBs require periodic inspection and a battery change.
I think another great addition for man overboard safety is an AIS personal locator. These devices are designed to be carried by on-watch crew and when triggered place an AIS SOS event on any AIS receivers in the vicinity. The reality of an EPIRB is that they are great alerting the responders of the world, but they do little to direct folks on the boat or other boats in the area to an MOB. An AIS hit will direct local resources to the MOB, likely even before the official responders have been activated. AIS transponders have evolved in a cost and size context to where they can easily be tucked into an inflatable PFD and will activate automatically when the PFD deploys.