How does an EPIRB work? Guide to life-saving device to have on board

An EPIRB device activated at sea

TheEPIRB is an essential device in the boat; it can serve you at any time wherever you are and can save your life. In fact, in case of an emergency you will promptly contact the authorities and activate sea rescue procedures, thanks to the EPIRB transmitter that has worldwide coverage.

What an EPIRB is and how it works

EPIRB stands for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon – in Italian Radiosegnatore della posizione di emergenza – and is a small device that can activate automatically o manually. Once activated (if automatic it activates upon contact with water), the EPIRB generally sends a dual distress and positioning signal, either digital (via satellite) or analog (via radio).

The satellite signal is used to alert the World System by Rescue and Safety at Sea (SMSSM) and to demarcate the area where search efforts should be concentrated, while the analog radio one, which has a limited range, allows rescuers to communicate with the nearest ground stations to pinpoint precisely where intervention is needed. The life-saving device, when activated, transmits a 5-watt signal every 50 seconds for at least 48 hours, sending a unique serial number useful for identifying the vessel, the port of origin, and additional information that may be useful to rescuers, such as an emergency contact.

Is it mandatory to have it on board?

According to current Italian regulations for recreational boats, it is mandatory to have an EPIRB only for navigation beyond 50 miles. It is also mandatory to have an EPIRB on board for boats with more than 12 passengers on board or for charter boats over 12 miles. The device must be registered with the Italian Cospas Sarsat Satellite Station (located in Bari, Italy) and must be programmed with the Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) code that uniquely identifies the radio device, and thus the vessel on which it is located. Every four years the EPIRB should undergo Shore Base Maintenance ( SBM ) overhaul, and in automatic models the hydrostatic hook should be replaced every two years.

Difference between EPIRB and PLB

A different type of transmitter widely used aboard boats is the PLB, which stands for Personal Locator Beacon. Unlike the EPIRB, the PLB is not part of the Global Sea Rescue and Safety System and is not programmed with an MMSI code, so it does not immediately identify a vessel. In fact, the PLB has a proprietary serial number, issued by each manufacturer, which makes it possible to identify the person who registered it. In addition to its use at sea, PLB is also popular in various outdoor activities such as hiking, trekking and climbing. PLB devices are usually smaller in size and are an excellent addition to the EPIRB.

Some differences exist within the EPIRB universe, between Category I (automatic) and Category II (manual) devices. Cat. 1 EPIRBs are placed inside a shell equipped with a hydrostatic hook that is activated at a depth of 4 meters, allowing the device to rise, which must then be installed outdoors. Cat. 2 devices, on the other hand, do not have automatic release but only manual quick release, and must be installed indoors. As of July 1, 2022, Cat. 1 automatic EPIRBs must also be equipped with a GNSS system and an AIS transmitter.

How do you program (and reprogram) an EPIRB?

When purchased, the EPIRB must be programmed with certain identifying parameters that allow the device to be uniquely identified, which must be communicated to the Cospas-Sarsat Satellite Station in Bari at the time of programming. The MMSI code is issued by the Territorial Inspectorate of the Ministry of Communications of the regional capital where the vessel is registered, which for Italy is a code beginning with 247, while the international call sign is issued by the Ministry of Defense and must be obtained from the Port Authority. When programmed and registered (it is also possible to do this with an EPIRB purchased abroad), the device is ready for use, and in the event of activation, SAR Authorities will attempt to contact the owner and the emergency contact he or she has indicated, to confirm the emergency.

It is possible to move an EPIRB only after reprogramming, which can be done by the same dealer from whom the purchase was made, at the national importer of the transmitter manufacturer, or at SVB Marine.

*in cooperation with SVB Marine



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