Something you should know about EPIRBS

Submitted: Sunday, Feb 05, 2006 at 23:18
ThreadID: 30466 Views:3776 Replies:6 FollowUps:21
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Friends of mine got waylaid walking in the mountains. They spent a night under the wet and windy stars, by lunch the next day realise they might have to do it again and there was a chance of a blizzard. They struck the EPIRB and 3½hours later were airlifted out.

What we were told by the rescue people is that the satelite that detects the beacon only passes overhead every few hours. Had they waited until later in the afternoon, by the time word gets to the actual the response unit, it would have been too late for help that night.

While we all agree that it is far better to not get into trouble in the first place, the moral is, don't be a hero, if in trouble strike the beacon sooner rather than later. Rescue helicopters aren't dispatched it it is too close to dusk.
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Reply By: peterK - Sunday, Feb 05, 2006 at 23:34

Sunday, Feb 05, 2006 at 23:34
Probably the best guide to epirbs, how search and resue is coordinated and the differences between the two types of epirbs is the Beacons page on the Australian Maritime Safety website

Dont worry about the Maritime title. All beacon monitoring and cordination for the Australian region is done or responded from the place

AnswerID: 153238

Follow Up By: Rob from Cairns Offroad Training & Tours - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 22:46

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 22:46
We always carry an epirb, GPS and a sat phone when we do our trail bike tours. When someone is hurt we call in on the sat phone to the nearest hospital and fill them in on the injury scenario. Our sweep riders all have done Snt Johns Ambulance courses. It is the hospitals call depending on location and injury on either ambulance or chopper. We used the chopper twice last year and an ambulance yesterday on our first trail ride of the year. In Queensland, ambulance cover is included when you pay your electricity bill. A tip about epirbs, we learnt from experience in heavily timbered country get the epirb as high off the ground as you possibly can even if it means climbing a tree so the chopper can zero in on the signal. It was frustrating last year to be able to see the chopper in heavy country yet he not zero in on us. We had made the mistake of placing the epirb on a tall termite hill in a small clearing but the iron in the ground was confusing the choppers signal once we held the epirb above our heads the chopper was able to winch paramedics down to us in heavy bush and stabilise the rider before winching up and taken to hospital. Cheers Rob
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Reply By: Tim HJ61 (WA) - Sunday, Feb 05, 2006 at 23:44

Sunday, Feb 05, 2006 at 23:44
Hi Lisa,

Good to see you didn't get bleeped this posting!! :-)

Good story. I'm hiking Cradle Mountains in May with a group of 5 and will be taking my EPIRB no matter what.

Out of interest, did the rescuers give them a hard time for setting off the EPIRB or was their situation deemed 'suitable' for a rescue? Always a bit of a hard call I'd guess.

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Follow Up By: Eric from Cape York Connections - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 08:10

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 08:10
that's a good point when do you decide its life and death you may think it is different to your rescuers if you know what I mean.

All the best
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Follow Up By: Utemad - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 10:15

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 10:15
Cradle Mountain in May! That will be damn cold. We did it in January and there was a little bit of snow on top.

Don't know about May but in Jan there was a lot of people around if you needed help. Plus if I remember correctly you got digital reception once you were higher up.
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Follow Up By: Tim HJ61 (WA) - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 11:50

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 11:50
Hmmm, you're not the first one to tell me that. I guess there is a reason why the 'season' where you have to book your walk, finishes end of April - anyone treking after then has to be nuts!

Us Perth boys are used to seeing white stuff on the ground. What we're not used to are the mountains not plains, and when the white stuff is snow not sand. The trek is one of those things that sounds nice during the exciting planning stage, doing it will certainly be different.

And digital reception???? I thought this was wilderness - chheeesh. My 16 year old is coming with me and his fancy new phone has a thermometer in it, which was a reason for him to carry it. Now he can text his mates from the middle of the trek, there'll be no holding him back - apart from a frostbitten, cranky, slow father of course.

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Follow Up By: Eric from Cape York Connections - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 11:54

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 11:54
Is that cdma or normal coverage.

All the best
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Follow Up By: Utemad - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 11:58

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 11:58
I am pretty sure we received SMS messages at the top of Cradle Mountain. It is by no means remote.

Are you doing just Cradle Mountain or the whole Overland Track? Either way both are quite busy during the touristy 'warmer' months. I would definately take a EPIRB on the Overland Track just to be sure but if it isn't heavy I would take it up Cradle Mountain if for no other reason than you can.
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Follow Up By: Leroy - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 11:59

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 11:59
Can be damn cold in Dec also. Was hiking in ove a ft of snow a few years back. You'd think it was winter!

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Follow Up By: Tim HJ61 (WA) - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 12:18

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 12:18
Thanks Leroy - really helpful. :-)

The whole trek Utemad.

6 days, 60km thereabouts. Group of five.

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Follow Up By: Utemad - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 12:25

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 12:25
In that case take the EPIRB. Especially that time of year.

Plus we want a write up when you get back. Well I do :-) .

We have talked about doing the Overland Track since we went to Cradle Mountain in Jan 05. It looks like it would be a fantastic trip.

Have fun.

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Follow Up By: Tim HJ61 (WA) - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 12:34

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 12:34
Sure Utemad,

I'll be packing extra gloves so I don't lose fingers, so I can make sure I can still type up my experiences.

Lovely day in Perth today. 30°, no wind, not a cloud in the sky. Just the sort of weather to lull one into a false sense of security about the Overland Track. I'll just go and sit in the freezer for while, with the fan blowing - that should be about right. Not much room in the freezer, but heck, thet's what hiking tents are like too!

I'd be happier if I could take my Cruiser....

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Follow Up By: SKP - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 14:06

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 14:06
Hi Tim, I have walked the Overland Track 5 times, the first time in 1991 in late April. We had thigh deep snow on Pelion Gap that trip,(I also had a slight problem with hypothermia, but thats another story)
Each trip we have had snow at some stage.
The Fagus should still have some colour in their leaves in May.
Have a great trip (and make sure that you have a nice warm sleeping bag)Steven P
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Follow Up By: LisaH - Tuesday, Feb 07, 2006 at 19:41

Tuesday, Feb 07, 2006 at 19:41
Hi Tim,

The rescue people were wonderful. Ii figure they realise that if you have set it off, you have done so for a reason.

I was playing 4WD backup and although they also had UHF radio, the country was too dense to get good reception. I knew they were alive and cold, and had spoken to the rangers.

Actually, if they hadn't set off the EPIRB, the rangers were already mobilising search and rescue for the next day. As I said there was a chance of a blizzard.

Enjoy your trip to the Cradle.

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Reply By: Footloose - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 08:26

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 08:26
Good advice. The "new" EPIRBS will make finding and identifying you a lot easier.
While a broken ankle in a group of remote area travellers might not be an emergency, if you were on your own it certainly would be. Remember that S&R would rather do a rescue than a recovery.
The EPIRB is the last thing that you want to activate, but in an emergency that's what it's there for.
AnswerID: 153269

Reply By: Jarse - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 10:34

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 10:34
Gidday Lisa,
If the EPIRB transmits on 121.5 as well as the sat frequency, it is not necessary for the satellite to pick you up immediately. Most airline aircraft monitor this frequency, and if an EPIRB is picked up it is reported to ATC. Other aircraft are asked to monitor (they usually are, anyway) and asked to report things such as squelch enabled/disabled (most of us can disable squelch on airborne receivers), when the signal is strongest/lost etc.

From what I understand, AUSSAR uses this info to estimate the position of the beacon and act accordingly.

I've monitored a couple of real-life activations (crashed aircraft), which have been located quite quickly. We experience a lot of inadvertant (heavy landings) activations. I pick up about 1 every couple of weeks on the East coast.

I agree with you that you should activate your EPIRB as soon as you believe your situation requires it.

One thing I noticed with some aircraft EPIRBS is that in addition to the distress tone, the registration of the aircraft is periodically announced. This is very useful if the pilot has left a flight plan.

I don't have any experience with the commercially available units to people such as 4W drivers. Do they just transmit the signal, or have a recorded identification function such as in the previous para?
AnswerID: 153291

Follow Up By: Tim HJ61 (WA) - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 11:06

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 11:06
I think the standard versions, like I have, just go beep, but these will become redundent soon by the newer models that will have provision to be identified - whether this is via the actual signal, or whether it is a database that the user has to enter data for the SAR operators to check, I don't know.

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Follow Up By: ro-dah-o (WA) - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 16:53

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 16:53
FYI new system will be a user register system- so if you dont register- they wont know who it belongs to.

Also some of the newer EPIRBS will also transmit a 'last known position' via a small GPS receiver built in. this is already available and relies on the EPIRB having a continual view of the sky (like most GPS). A funny situation occured with one of these when a yacht's EPIRB was activated. the info that they from the GPS data had put its position to somewhere in the indian, when actual fact the yacht was sitting in a wharehouse in the US!!
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Follow Up By: Pajman Pete (SA) - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 17:42

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 17:42
I was involved in a SAR in Darwin some years ago when an EPIRB fell off it's mounting in a blokes tinny on his way home and triggered. Tinny was then parked in a garage that attenuated the signal sufficiently that we could not get a lock any better that 5 miles on it.

It was eventually tracked down to the blokes home in suburban Darwin. Still only took about 6 hours though.

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Follow Up By: Jarse - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 17:55

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 17:55
Yeah Pete, I know what you mean about finding the offending EPIRB safely tucked up in bed in the garage.

Most of the ones I've heard are found in the hangar, or tied down at Bankstown/Camden/Hoxton Park. But when I hear that I'm totally stoked that it was only a "heavy landing" and all are okay.

The good thing about SAR activity is that anyone that participates in the search activity is only interested in a good outcome for all concerned. Totally "non-jeopardy" if it is a spurious/false alarm. How long that'll last is anyone's guess. If the govt can find a way of "user pays" for false alarms, that might deter people from getting them in the first place. That would be unfortunate....
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Follow Up By: Member - Matt M (ACT) - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 19:43

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 19:43
Well worth spending the extra money on a 406 EPIRB because of the increased accuracy and the fact that it can identify the owner. Sending all this information (position, registration number, etc) takes a few satellite passes but the distress signal goes out very quickly. The SAR people love them because they are able to make a phone call to the numbers you nominate when you register. This often knocks a false alarm on the head before expensive SAR assets are launched or allows them to get a more accurate picture of what they are dealng with (number of people, equipment/experience you have, medical conditions, etc).

I spent several years working for the US Coast Guard doing SAR and the policy was that they would 'launch' for a 406 EPIRB almost immediately, whereas they would wait for 'correlating SAR information', distress flares, overdue reports, visual sightings, etc before getting too serious about a 121.5 hit. Although one group of rather dull thieves stole thousands of dollars of gear from several fishing vessels in Norfolk and then drove several hundred miles to their home in Boston. They were very surprised when the cops knocked on their door for a chat. Hadn't realised that they had activated the EPIRB when they pulled it of its bracket and that we tracked them the whole way!

Also the 406MHz frequency is a dedicated SAR frequency whereas 121.5 has some other uses. Most (marine at least) 406 EPIRBS also have a 121.5 MHz homing beacon that on site SAR units will use to hone in on your position when on scene. One good piece of advice offered to me when using them in a 4WD is to keep them handy to the driver's position. Not much use to you when floating off down the river in your car or forming the centrepiece of a four wheel BBQ. Still, a $30,000 signal fire is probably a good start to any search and rescue.


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Follow Up By: ro-dah-o (WA) - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 22:34

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 22:34
121.5 is going to be phased out over the next few years for the very reasons that Matt M mentioned. Also they have the ability to transmit 'last known position'- GPS reference
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Reply By: Mike DiD - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 18:01

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 18:01
"did the rescuers give them a hard time for setting off the EPIRB "

- the rescuers realise that if the people hadn't set off the EPIRB when they did, the alternative would have been going out on a search - but for people who had been out in terrible weather for several days. They would be under pressure to search under dangerous conditions, knowing that any delay in finding them could make the difference between life and death. A search costs many times more person and flying hours than a rescue.

National Parks have EPIRBS available for minimal rental so they can rescue someone in trouble, knowing exactly where they are, rather than search for people when they are days overdue and they have little idea where they are.

AnswerID: 153396

Reply By: Crackles - Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 21:42

Monday, Feb 06, 2006 at 21:42
Great to hear your friend was fine & all turned out well. Was he asked to pay the helicopter bill or did he offer? Hate to see the taxpayer fork out for someone who couldn't read a map & wasn't prepared for the conditions. In these days of GPS's I'm bemused how anyone could get "waylaid"?
Cheers Craig.........
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Follow Up By: LisaH - Tuesday, Feb 07, 2006 at 19:48

Tuesday, Feb 07, 2006 at 19:48
Bit harsh Craig,

So many things can go wrong, particularly when horses are involved. The details are not really important, but it was a cascading effect.

Actually there was never any mention made of payment. I gather the result would have been different if the rescue was required for a commercial outfit. It was a question asked on several occasions.

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Follow Up By: Crackles - Tuesday, Feb 07, 2006 at 21:45

Tuesday, Feb 07, 2006 at 21:45
A bit harsh Lisa, maybe maybe not? I see no issue with rescues being made for people who are injured or left stranded but believe some fee should be paid if not all costs for those who are lost or delayed depending on the circumstances. More often than not it comes down to poor planning, lack of training or plain incompetence. Expensive search & rescues could be a simple pick up job if those in trouble carried suitable navigation & communication equipment. Letting someone know of the travel intentions or going in a group would in many cases avoid the need to set an EPIRB off in the first place.
If "so many things can go wrong, particularly when horses are involved" then so many more preparations are required to make the trip safe so in reality "the detail" is extremely important.
For example if a sat phone & GPS was carried could the group have rung for assistance avoiding unnecessary worry by the family, avoiding the search & minimising the tax payers expense?
IMHO carrying an EPIRB is not a preparation for a trip, it's a cheap and easy way out for those ill prepared. (Harsh as that may sound)
Cheers Craig..............
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Follow Up By: LisaH - Wednesday, Feb 08, 2006 at 20:19

Wednesday, Feb 08, 2006 at 20:19
As i said, there was a cascading effect. untill you know the facts there is no use you getting upset about it. For the record, they had 2 way's, GPS, maps, EPIRB. It was a personal fitness failure of one of the party ok? My point was to recommend that when you DO get in trouble, just don't wait too late to ask for help.

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