Boaters switch to digital beacons

March 15, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
After the big switch to digital TV in June, existing analog televisions will no longer work. A similar switch just took place for millions of boaters and pilots: the switch to digital emergency beacons. Rescue agencies stopped listening to the old locator beacons in February.

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A search and rescue mission is launched every day in the United States. One fourth of those missions involve an emergency locator beacons, a satellite technology that has helped save 6, 200 lives.

"There's nothing that beats pulling someone out of the water," says Lt. Matt Kroll, a U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Pilot, "or seeing someone come home to their family at night. I've seen many people get reunited right here on our own ramp."

But, in February the government stopped listening to old-fashioned analog beacons and began listening only for signals from the new digital "406" beacon.

It could have made it easier to find famed pilot Steve Fawcett's crashed airplane, which carried one of the outdated models. The fishing boat with four football players that capsized off Florida recently did not have one at all.

"Please, please, please," Ernest Dellit Gatti pleads, "register the beacon online. It's completely free. And all we ask is that you put the proper information in it."

Delli Gatti is a Rescue Coordinator with the Coast Guard. Even though a new 406 beacon can cost $1000, he says relying on the old one means "it could be hours before we get a good fix on the beacon, versus with the 406: less than ten minutes."

The new technology is vastly more accurate. And, the signal can be tagged with the skipper's name, phone number, a description of the vessel or aircraft and all kinds of information that reduces the number of rescue launches due to false alerts, saving the taxpayer millions.

That is what has happened in the first 30 days of switchover. Early reports from the Coast Guard and the satellite operator NOAA indicate that boaters and aviators got the message. False alerts are down and this technology transition was satisfyingly uneventful.

------- Links -------

  • US Coast Guard official announcement
    www.uscg.mil/global/widget/beacon.asp
  • Search and Rescue information from the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS)
    www.sarsat.noaa.gov/

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