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PLB or EPIRB

Firstly – Andrew McCauley never actuated his beacon. It was tested after his kayak was retrieved and was found to be in working order – but it had never been activated.

Quote: The NZ Coroner noted: “The EPIRB was not activated. Had it been activated the kayak would have been able to be pinpointed and identified within minutes. A helicopter would have been asked to undertake a mission within minutes of receipt of the distress beacon, and been at the location in less than an hour. One can only speculate as to why the beacon was not activated …”

This is mentioned because it’s a major reason for pushing kayakers to use PLBs instead of EPIRBs. Andrew had his EPIRB mounted in his boat – not on his person. EPIRBs get mounted inside kayaks because they are bulky. Andrew never actuated the beacon, even though he put out a call for help on his VHF, and it is fair to conjecture that if he had not become separated from his boat he would have triggered the EPIRB and would probably be alive today.

It is recommended to carry a PLB on the shoulder of your PFD. Do this because although you might never become separated from your kayak, there are a number of ways it might happen. If it ever does, you don’t want to lose your beacon too.

Carry the PLB high on the shoulder of your PFD – in a small pouch attached to the shoulder strap – to keep it as salt-free as you can and to give it the best view of the satellites if you ever need to use it. You can get at it with either hand, and plan to return it to the pouch after releasing the aerial and actuating it. Also tie it on with a strong lanyard.

Buying Overseas – a User’s Comments

I bought my PLB in Canada for use kayaking on the coasts of Alaska & Canada in 2010. I registered it in the Canadian online registry and I updated that registry information to show my ‘location of use’ whenever I travel. At the moment, it shows ‘kayaking & tramping in NZ’. It is registered in the Canadian registry because it’s a Canadian ID beacon and I felt no need to spend the $200-300 to change the country ID to NZ.

It’s a beacon for international use – that’s what 406 beacons are! Every 406 beacon talks happily to every overhead LEOSAR or GEOSAR satellite, which all pass on the messages to the same ground stations. 406 beacons were developed for vessels moving throughout the world – for example: virtually all aircraft and cruising yachts use them.

Note that Andrew McAuley’s beacon was an Australian registry unit. There is a lot of misinformation put out (in NZ) about response times to beacons in the NZ registry and other ‘foreign’ registries. I consider this to verge on criminal misinformation – and to be largely driven by local commercial interests.

My Fastfind 210 PLB cost me about half of the going price in NZ in July 2010. That was from a main-street Vancouver store (not online) – with all Canadian taxes (higher than NZ GST). This year (2011), another friend bought one for well less than half the NZ price, also for kayaking in Alaska, Canada & six other countries in Europe. She’ll return to NZ in October and adjust her registry info to show ‘now in NZ’.

What Happens

All 406 beacon signals are picked up by satellites and passed to a very few regional ground stations. These signals then get passed to two places – the response centre in the SAR region where the signal is coming from (e.g. Rescue Coordination Centre NZ – RCCNZ) and the country of registration.

If the signal comes from an urban bedroom closet, the response may be slower. If it comes from an ocean or wilderness location, it is treated as an emergency in all civilised jurisdictions. The RCCNZ aims to get something underway inside of 10 minutes. Yes, there will be efforts made to contact the owner – if only to establish vessel details, number in party, etc. But a GPS-enabled & registered beacon is treated differently to one of the old 121 beacons.

Misinformation

The protectionist misinformation in NZ is rife. This is a current quote from the NZ website –http://www.beacons.org.nz – which purports to have the support of the NZ Police, Maritime NZ, etc.

“If you buy one from overseas or over the Internet, it could be an expensive mistake, as when activated, the satellite may notify the wrong rescue co-ordination centre, which could mean a long, potentially life-threatening delay in your rescue.”

Clarification was requested from Maritime New Zealand on the above quote – these are the questions and this is what they said in reply (April 2010) –

Question: “Can you please confirm that this warning above implies that Australian, Canadian, European or American kayakers (or trampers or sailors) using their own PLB, registered in those countries, will not be responded to in a timely fashion by NZ SAR?”

Answer: “No, all SAR responses will hopefully be in a timely manner. The warning is to advise purchasers of foreign beacons that they can not be registered on the New Zealand Database. Beacons have to be registered in the country that has been coded into the beacon. e.g. USA beacons in the USA with NOAA and Australian coded beacons with Australia Maritime Safety Authority. In both these countries it is compulsory to register beacons as well.”

“In relation to response times RCCNZ will respond to any beacon within our area of responsibility, regardless of its country of origin, once we have the beacon alert. The response will be dependent on what notification we receive e.g. from a GEOSAT with or without position or from a LEOSAT. The main reason for registration is to help avoid the response to inadvertent activations and the associated efforts by SAR units looking for these when their services can be used on genuine events and also to find out what or who is likely to be at the scene when the SAR unit arrives.”

Question: “Will they still delay while contacting on-shore ‘nominated persons’ from the registration information?”

Answer: “All beacon responses plans should be commenced within ten minutes of receiving the initial alert. e.g. if no phone contacts can be made within that time to determine who or what is likely to be the reason for the activation then a response should be developed.”

So, buy one here in NZ and register it in NZ if you want to support the NZ retail chain – and have the spare cash. If you will use it overseas and/or feel like going through the hassle of dealing with an overseas registry – explore those options. You must determine what is right for you. If you ever need to trigger your PLB in NZ waters, the RCCNZ response will be fast & professional in either case.

Also note that Australia & NZ have a unique requirement for PLBs to be sold here, they must float. (It will if it is tied on to you.) Thus some of the best units are not sold here or are sold as variant models (e.g. Fastfind 211 instead of the rest-of-world 210). Most manufacturers in this situation come up with a neoprene sleeve of some sort – which is usually available as an option in the Rest-of-World. Why we need to do this in Oceania is a mystery – unless it has something to do with Australia’s being protectionist – but surely they wouldn’t do that with foreign safety gear, even if they might be a little obstructive over NZ apples…

What is a PLB?

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are for personal use-mainly by bushwalkers, cross-country vehicle clubs, mountaineers and other adventurers on land. They can also be used in light aircraft, gliders, hot air balloons and in some maritime situations.

They’re small enough to fit in your pocket and are activated manually.

What kind of 406 MHz PLB do I need?

There is a wide range of beacons available for land use. PLBs are for trampers, climbers, four-wheel drivers and other outdoors people. PLB’s are also suitable for very small aircraft, gliders and in some maritime situations. They’re small enough to fit in your pocket and are activated manually.

We strongly recommend you purchase a PLB with built-in GPS as this dramatically improves their accuracy. This means your location can be identified by the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) on the first contact with a satellite. Without GPS it would require two satellites to pick up your beacon signal, to resolve the ambiguity of the satellite positions. The time between satellite passes varies greatly, ranging between 20 minutes and 4.5 hours.

For marine-only situations we recommend the marine version of a PLB called an EPIRB, as most PLBs do not float. Also, the batteries in EPIRBs last approximately twice as long as those in a PLB.

Your local supplier will guide you to the option that is most suitable for your needs, taking into account the kind of activity you engage in.

Where should I keep my PLB?

If you are using a PLB in a maritime situation, you should keep it on your person.

Country codes

Each country has an individual 406 code. The New Zealand Country Code is 512. If bought overseas it must be registered in the country of purchase.

You must register your new beacon.

This means search and rescue can contact you or a person you nominate to verify activation if your beacon goes off. This improves search response time and cuts down on false alarms. Once your beacon is registered you will need to keep your details up to date and notify the register if the beacon changes ownership.

How to register

There are two easy ways to register your 406 MHz beacon:

1. Fill out the online 406 registration form

2. Or download the PDF registration form, fill it in and post, email or fax your form to:

Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand 
PO Box 30050 
Lower Hutt 5040 
Fax: +64 4 577 8041

Email: 406registry@maritimenz.govt.nz or 
Phone 0800 406 111 if you have any questions about registering your beacon.

How to change country

Bright Ideas in Auckland – regarding registering a US model Fastfind 210 PLB in NZ:

“We can do this reprogramming for you. We have to glue a flotation pouch to it and attach a lanyard, re-sticker, reprogramme and supply new documentation. Please courier or post to the address below. The conversion cost is $200 inc GST and includes the necessary work to enable you to register it here. If you live in the South Island please add $10 to the cost. Turn around is usually 2 days.”

2/2A Progressive Way
East Tamaki
Auckland
Phone: (09) 271-3656
Mobile: 0275 44 88 47

Postal:
PO Box 72-182
Papakura
Fax: (09) 278-9016

Disposing of your old PLB

It’s important to dispose of your old 121.5 or 243 MHz PLB properly. If you do not it could still be accidentally activated causing an unnecessary search and rescue operation. There is also the risk that someone may use one of the old 121.5 MHz PLBs, thinking that it is a useful safety device.

Old PLBs need to have their battery disconnected and then be disposed of in accordance with local regulations as many contain hazardous materials. Click here for a list of suppliers who will help you to dispose of your old beacon safely. Some of these suppliers may offer trade-in deals.

If you sell or dispose of a registered 406 MHz beacon, please let RCCNZ know by phoning 0800 406 111

KASK's aims are to:

1. Promote and encourage the sport of sea kayaking
2. Promote safety standards
3. Develop techniques and equipment
4. Deal with issues of coastal access and protection
5. Organise sea kayak forums around the country
6. Publish the Sea Canoeist Newsletter and the KASK Handbook