Using emergency beacons to increase likelihood of rescue

Justine Heeley, Marine Director at McMurdo UK, shares some top tips on how to maximise your chance of rescue using emergency beacons.

Anyone who is planning to go out on the water needs to be prepared for an emergency. It is vital that you not only carry the right equipment, but that you know what you should do in an emergency situation, whether you are alone or in a group.

It is important that you can alert people when you are in trouble so they can find you quickly and get you to safety. Emergency beacons can aid search and rescue efforts, but it is essential that you know how to use them correctly.

Buy a 406Mhz beacon with built-in GPS. These, when activated, communicate directly with emergency personnel and have helped save more than 40,000 lives since 1982.

The following tips can help you before and during an emergency situation, and help increase your chance of rescue.

Register your beacon

It is vital that you register the beacon with your national EPIRB authority. Each beacon has a unique digital identity and is sent along with your 406MHz distress signal to the Search and Rescue Services. Pre-registration of the device means that the unique digital identity is recognised by the authorities when the distress signal is received.

You can find out more about registration at the COSPASSARSAT website at

Keep your registration current

Do not forget to keep your beacon’s registration information updated as frequently as possible – especially in the days leading up to your departure.

Self-test your beacon

Before setting out, it is important to test your beacon to make sure it is functioning properly. You will also want to include a 24-hour contact in your registration profile. We recommend having your beacon serviced on an annual basis by an approved service centre.


Keep the beacon within reach

The last step before departure is to identify an easy-to-access and effective location for your beacon. There are too many stories of individuals who lose time in an emergency situation because the beacons are in a cabinet or out of immediate reach.

Emergency beacons are one of the most reliable tools for improving your chance of rescue. However always keep as many communication options as possible, including mobile phones, radios and automatic identification systems.

You should activate a distress beacon only in a true life or death situation.

Ensure antenna is unobstructed

Upon beacon activation, make sure the device’s antenna is pointing upward with a clear view to the sky. Take it outside of a vessel, elevate it, keep it above water, find a clearing and ensure that it is free of any other obstructions.

Stay in the same location

In the majority of search and rescue situations, you should remain in the same location as long as possible. This may be especially hard on water, though having the emergency beacon on and near you at all times will ensure rescuers receive accurate signals, even if you find yourself drifting.

Make yourself visible

The more you understand the nature of the location, the easier it will be to make yourself clearly visible to search and rescue teams. Several beacons have strobe lights to aid rescue efforts. Use any and all tools at your disposal, including flares, other lighting or any other bright or reflective devices.

Give the rescue effort time and stay calm

A beacon can be activated in seconds, but depending on where you are, it may be several hours – or longer – before rescue authorities are able to come to your assistance.