A distress beacon is an electronic transmitter you can use to alert rescuers that you are in a life-threatening situation and need to be rescued.
When activated, the beacon sends out a signal that is picked up by a satellite and relayed to search and rescue authorities. In New Zealand, this is the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ). The beacon's signal allows RCCNZ to work out your location and has a unique code that identifies you as its owner (as long as you have registered the beacon).
Distress beacons operate on the 406MHz frequency. RCCNZ continuously monitors this frequency and responds to all alerts on land, sea or air within New Zealand's search and rescue region.
When RCCNZ staff receive an alert from your beacon, they look up its identification code in a register and phone your emergency contacts to find out the size of your party, what you are likely to be doing and any other relevant information (such as medical conditions).
RCCNZ then sends rescuers to the beacon's location. The beacon also emits a homing signal, which rescuers use to pinpoint your position as they get closer.
A distress beacon is one of the most reliable ways of signalling that you need help in an emergency. New Zealand's rugged landscape and changeable weather mean you can get into trouble in remote areas very quickly.
If possible, you should always have at least two reliable forms of
communication. The following may be useful as a back-up, but none is as
effective as a distress beacon:
Different beacons are designed for use in different environments. Although they all work in the same way, you should choose the beacon that is most suitable for the activity you are undertaking.
The three types of beacon are:
EPIRBs are normally waterproof and designed to float upright to optimise their signal. Some are self-activating in water as well as having a manual switch and may float free of a vessel in an emergency. Many have strobe lights and lanyards, with brackets to fit them to your vessel.
EPIRBs are distress beacons designed for the maritime environment. They are waterproof and designed to float in water. Some require manual activation and have additional safety devices, such as strobe lights. Others are self-activating and will float free in an emergency. The battery life of an EPIRB is normally twice as long as that of a PLB (personal locator beacon).
PLBs are small portable beacons typically carried by trampers, climbers, hunters and people working in remote areas. A lot of people use PLBs on small boats and for other water-based activities, but most do not float and may not be fully waterproof. Their aerials are often not designed for use in the water. Once activated, PLBs usually have a shorter battery life than EPIRBs.
Always carry your PLB on you, not in your pack – it's easy to get separated from your gear! Out on the water, attach it to your lifejacket or clothing where it can be reached easily in an emergency.
ELTs are fixed to the aircraft and designed to activate on impact. They can also be activated manually in an emergency.Back to top
Beacons with inbuilt global positioning systems (GPS) are strongly recommended because they can quickly provide an accurate position to RCCNZ and reduce the response time for a rescue. Non-GPS beacons rely on orbiting satellites to confirm their position, which can take more time
Choose the beacon that suits the activities you are involved in. Your local beacon supplier can guide you. Suppliers are listed on the beacons website: www.beacons.org.nz.
When you activate a 406MHz beacon, it is quickly identified by satellite, which then alerts RCCNZ. If registered, the identification code in your beacon can be searched in the database, so RCCNZ know who you are, who your emergency contacts are and what type of vessel, aircraft or vehicle you are in, or if you are tramping, hunting or diving.
RCCNZ may also be able to find out exactly who is with you and how long you have been gone, and whether anyone has any medical conditions, so rescuers can be in the best position to help you when you are located.
To register your beacon, phone: 0508 406 111, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the beacons website www.beacons.org.nz.
DON'T DELAY – REGISTER TODAY
For more information about the satellite system, go to www.cospas-sarsat.org.
Read the instruction manual and familiarise yourself with how your beacon operates before you take it out.
Check the expiry date for the battery, which is shown on the beacon label. Batteries should be replaced by your supplier or agent (see the website www.beacons.og.nz for details). Make sure your beacon is registered and the registration is kept up to date.
RCCNZ usually receives alerts from distress beacons within minutes. However, depending on the type of beacon you're carrying, it can take two hours or longer for satellites to pinpoint your location. That's why it is vital to take other safety precautions.
Make sure you have the right equipment and a good idea about what you will be doing and the risks involved. Check the weather and, if in doubt, get some expert advice before you go. Tell your emergency contacts where you're going, the route you're planning to take, and when you intend to be back.
If you get into difficulties when the weather is very bad, be prepared for a long wait – rescue services may not be able to reach you at night or in extreme conditions, even when they know where you are.
When you activate your beacon, it needs to be able to 'see' the satellite. If you are in a deep gully or steep terrain, it may take longer for an orbiting satellite to accurately identify your position. Activate the beacon in open air if possible, with its antenna vertical. Do not turn your beacon off until the rescue crew tell you to do so.
Make yourself visible to rescuers if you can, using recognised distress signals or bright and/or contrasting colours during the day and a light source at night. A beacon's strobe or the light from a torch are good (but avoid shining lights directly at aircraft).
Remember that carrying a beacon is not a substitute for good planning and preparation. Be prepared to wait and do what you can to survive while help is on its way.Back to top
If your beacon is set off accidentally, phone RCCNZ immediately on 0508 472 269. This will ensure a search and rescue operation is not launched needlessly. If you are unable to contact RCCNZ immediately, switch off the beacon and make contact as soon as you are able to. There is no penalty for accidental activation.
This depends on the type of EPIRB and where you are installing it.
On boats – If your EPIRB comes with a mounting bracket, place it where it is visible and easy to access in an emergency. If the EPIRB and mount have a magnetic activated mounting switch ensure that the two magnets are “face to face”. Make sure the EPIRB stays dry and keep it locked away when nobody is on board. If you are using a PLB, you must keep it on your person.
In the life raft – If you have an inflatable life raft on board, an additional beacon can be stored inside the raft.
Note: If you are moving beacons, always make sure they are in the “safe” or “off” mode.Back to top
The 406MHz distress beacons work all over the world, so you can use your New Zealand-coded beacon when travelling overseas. If the beacon is activated, the rescue centre responsible for the region where it is transmitting will be notified. RCCNZ will also be notified, because it holds the beacon's registration.
If you leave New Zealand permanently, then your beacon must be recoded for the new country and registered there.
Each country has an individual 406 code. When you purchase a 406 MHz distress beacon, make sure it is coded for New Zealand. The New Zealand Country Code is 512.
If you buy one from overseas or over the Internet, it could be an expensive mistake if it has the wrong code. When it is activated, the satellite may notify the wrong rescue coordination centre, which could mean a long, potentially life-threatening delay in your rescue. In some cases, it will not result in a rescue at all.Back to top
Offshore pleasure vessels heading overseas are required to carry a registered 406MHz EPIRB. Yachts undertaking coastal races where Category 2 or 3 safety rules apply must carry a registered 406 MHz EPIRB. For further advice, contact the recreational boating team at email@example.com.
For some classes of vessels, it became compulsory to carry registered 406MHz EPIRBs from 1 July 2008. To determine if that applies to you, please contact your nearest Maritime New Zealand advisor or check out the relevant rules at www.maritimenz.govt.nz.
Old or obsolete beacons need to be disposed of carefully, to ensure they are not set off by accident. Do not just throw them away, as a lot of time and money has been spent on search operations to dig beacons out of rubbish tips.
The battery needs to be disconnected and the beacon disposed of according to local regulations, as many beacons contain hazardous materials. The names of distributors who dispose of old beacons can be found at www.beacons.org.nz.