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Sos Issued Over Boat Emergency Beacons


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SOS issued over boat emergency beacons

Paul Bibby

September 29, 2008

SEARCH and rescue authorities fear thousands of Australian boat users will hit the water this summer carrying emergency beacons that do not work because overseas authorities are to cut the satellite receiver that picks up the distress signals.

For the past 26 years skippers have gone to sea with the EPIRB 121.5 safety beacon - so named because it transmits an emergency signal on a frequency of 121.5 megahertz when activated.

The device is estimated to have saved 20,000 lives around the world since 1982. But it will be dumped on February 1, midway through the boating season, and replaced by a newer model operating on a different frequency.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority estimates there are about 150,000 121.5 MHz distress beacons across the country that will need to be switched over to the 406 MHz beacons before February. It fears that despite an extensive education campaign, many boat owners, hikers and other adventurers will not get a new beacon in time.

The NSW Water Police and representatives of the Royal Coastal Patrol say there are serious concerns for the season ahead.

"There's no doubt there are people out there who, for whatever reason, still have the old 121.5 beacon and they will go out to sea this summer with something that is going to be of very little use if they get into trouble," said Sergeant Tony Hill, of the force's marine area command.

"We've got some problems without the satellite detection. Without it, the only way your 121 signal will be picked up is if an aircraft passes overhead - some of them will still pick up the signal. But even then you could have a search footprint of 5000 kilometres. The odds of getting rescued? Not good."

The driving force behind the termination of the 121.5 EPIRB was the US Coast Guard, a crucial member of the international Cospas-Sarsat satellite network that tracks and transmits emergency signals around the world.

The Coast Guard has argued that everyone should switch to the 406 frequency beacon because it more accurately transmits the location of those in distress, can relay information about the type of vessel and passengers on board, and produces far fewer false alarms, which can be costly.

But some within Australia's search and rescue organisations believe the decision is motivated by a desire to cut costs, and most question the wisdom of making the switch in the middle of the southern hemisphere summer.

"It wasn't our decision to turn the satellite receiver off then - it isn't ideal," said a spokeswoman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, Tracey Jiggins.

Hindering the take-up of the newer beacon is the high cost - up to $1000 for the top model.

"I'd say there's 50, 60 per cent of recreational boat users don't even know," said the co-owner of the Huett Marine Centre, Craig Huett.

Brian McDermott, who was saved thanks to an EPIRB 121 after his yacht Excalibur sank off the NSW coast in 2005, says the switch could end in tragedy. "I am concerned there could be a loss of life - if it wasn't for that EPIRB we wouldn't be here now."

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