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Coast Guard to stop monitoring analog distress signals

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By Kellie Parkin

The US Coast Guard announced last week that beginning Feb. 1 it will only monitor digital 406 MHz frequencies for mariners in distress.

This means that mariners and aviators who have not upgraded to the digital format will be unable to send distress signals using analog equipment transmitting on the 121.5 or 243.0 MHz frequency.

“There problem with the older format,” said Petty Officer Robert Simpson, “is that the analog signal doesn’t give an actual location – just a 500 square mile area.”

The digital 406 MHz gives rescuers an initial 25 square mile maximum search area, and can quickly get within eight miles. When the digital beacon is connected to a Global Positioning System (GPS) device, the search area is as little as 100 yards, and within minutes an actual location can be pinpointed.

The other factor leading the Coast Guard to transition to digital is the exorbitant amount of false alarms put out by analog signals. “Four out of five analog distress signals are false alerts,” Simpson said.

These erroneous signals can come from a variety of sources, including ATMs, big screens in venues such as stadiums and amphitheaters, large pizza ovens, and even microwaves. “With the analog signals, we would have to launch a full-scale search and rescue mission until we could confirm that it wasn’t a distressed boater,” Simpson said.

The Coast Guard is urging mariners and aviators to upgrade their onboard analog equipment to include a digital 406-MHz EPIRB, or Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacon. Advantages to the EPIRB include worldwide coverage, more reliable position information, more stable and sustained signal, digitally encoded data to help curb false alerts, and overall faster response times which conserves tax dollars.

EPIRB owners are required to register their beacons through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Simpson said. This can be done by visiting www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov, or by calling 1-888-212-SAVE.

Federal law also requires EPIRB owners to update pertinent contact and vessel identification information every two years or when the information changes. “It’s also important to re-register a beacon if it’s bought used,” Simpson added.

The database will greatly reduce search time by providing vital information about missing boaters, their vessel and their location, significantly increasing survival outcomes in distress situations, Simpson said.