Sailing offshore is often deeply rewarding. But these adventures also entail risks that
can occasionally prove life threatening—even for the most experienced boaters. That's where Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) come in. Available for use in the United States since 2003, this remarkable technology provides a powerful safety net for wilderness travelers. Fortunately, newer models have
gotten smaller and less expensive than earlier models.
What Is a Personal Locator Beacon?
A PLB is a portable transmitter capable of sending out a personalized emergency distress signal to a network of orbiting military
satellites. These satellites can then relay your information to search-and-rescue teams anywhere in the world.
PLBs have rugged, waterproof plastic housings and are powered by special long-lasting lithium batteries. The models sold by Landfall are about the size of a TV remote control and weigh about one-half pound or less.
Landfall’s selection of Personal Locator Beacons
The Story Behind PLBs
While PLBs have been available for use in the U.S. since 2003,
this powerful technology has been used by Emergency Position Indicating Radio
Beacons (EPIRBs) for several decades and has been estimated to have saved
nearly 15,000 lives.
PLBs are the personal equivalents of EPIRBs and utilize the same
satellite networks. However it is important to note that it should not be used as a replacement for an
The U.S. Coast Guard serves as the point of contact for marine rescues and it is necessary to register your
PLB with NOAA(register using this link)
in the same manner in which you register your EPIRB.
Keep in mind that when you sail on different boats, you will need to update your
registry each time you get on a different boat.
This way the USCG (and taxpayers) can avoid costly rescue efforts due to
activation with an incorrect registration.
How a PLB Works
PLBs transmit signals on internationally recognized distress
frequencies. In the U.S., PLBs transmit at 406 MHz (MegaHertz),
a frequency monitored by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
and the AFRCC.
A PLB communicates with a network of Russian, Canadian, American
and French satellites known as COSPAS-SARSAT (SARSAT is an acronym for"Search
and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking")
Click here for an illustration of the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system
After receiving your transmission, these satellites
fix on your location using a Doppler Shift method and relay your
information to the AFRCC where search and rescue procedures begin. If you use a
GPS-compatible PLB, you can deliver your GPS coordinates very quickly without
having to wait for the satellites to determine your position.
Personalized Signal register it with NOAA
When you do so,NOAA will link your essential personal information to a 15-character
alpha-numeric code known as a Unique Identifying Number (UIN). When
activated, the PLB transmits your UIN to the COSPAS-SARSAT satellites via
While the electronic bursts provide search-and-rescue units with
your location, the UIN tells them personal information such as your name,
address, phone number and any medical conditions you may have.
How Long Will a PLB Transmit?
A PLB comes equipped with a long-lasting lithium battery. This battery remains dormant until you flip the switch to activate the PLB.
By COSPAS-SARSAT regulations:
A class 1 heavy-duty battery must be able to transmit at -40°F (-40°C) for 24 hours
A class 2 battery must be able to transmit at -20°F (-28.9°C) for 24 hours
Cold temperatures will shorten a battery's operating time, and the situations above represent worst-case scenarios. For example, at a temperature of 70°F, these batteries will operate for approximately twice as long as they will at very cold temperatures.
When Should I Buy an EPIRB Instead of a PLB?
Larger than PLBs, EPIRBs are designed to automatically right themselves, float, transmit in an upright position and some (Category I EPIRBS) are even designed to activate upon submersion. These features are essential in a marine environment, as they allow you to tread water while waiting for rescue. EPIRBS are more expensive than PLBS as they have more features and a longer battery life when transmitting.
PLBs are perfect devices to keep on your person to transmit your location if you are swept overboard. The best place is to have it affixed to your life-vest so that you’ll always have it when you’re taking watch and giving the PLB the best opportunity to transmit its beacon with ninety percent of your body submerged. A safe rule of thumb goes: “If you have to ask whether or not you need a PLB, you probably need a PLB”
PLBs are not intended to replace an EPIRB. Every vessel heading offshore should have a working and properly registered EPIRB on board. When you’re sitting in a liferaft or worse, an EPIRB is the best device available for transmitting your location to SAR teams. While a PLB can work in this situation, you shouldn’t let the cost barrier of a few hundred dollars prevent you from having the best probability for a successful rescue. That few hundred dollars can be the difference between a rescue situation and a recovery situation.
What about Personal AIS Transmitters?
Personal locator devices such as Kennad’s S20 are personal AIS transmitters that will transmit your location to any AIS enabled chartplotter within range and you will show up as an MOB on their screen. This will let vessels within transmission range key-in on your location and with their proximity this may allow for a quicker extraction than waiting for a SAR team. A Personal AIS transmitter will not however, transmit a signal to USCG SAR teams like a PLB does.
One concern with PLBs is that the boats in close proximity cannot locate you using chartplotters or other devices on board a typical recreational vessel. If you happen to have a person overboard situation where the person overboard has a PLB and you are in a capacity to perform a rescue you can call the USCG Rescue Coordination Center RCC for the sailing/boating area in which you currently are located. Let them know you lost a person overboard and give them your location and they will relay GPS coordinates they are receiving from the PLB to allow quick MOB rescue.
No Subscription Fees
You will not have to pay any recurring fees in order to use a PLB. The satellite and search-and-rescue networks are already in place, ready to serve you should you encounter disaster while at sea.
Important: A Personal Locator Beacon/EPIRB should be activated only in situations of grave and imminent danger such as; beings swept overboard or the event of a fire, swamping or sinking of vessel. In the event of a disabled vessel PLB/EPIRB can be used after all other means of communication have been exhausted.