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Understanding the Activation Process of Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) and Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) in New Zealand

Have you ever thought about what actually happens when you flick the switch?

In this blog post, we explain the steps involved when a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) or Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) is activated in New Zealand. These devices are essential for anyone who ventures into remote or hazardous areas, such as boating, tramping, hunting or flying. They can save lives by alerting the authorities to your location and situation in case of an emergency.

Here are the steps that happen when you activate a PLB or EPIRB:

  1. Activation: In an emergency situation, you manually activate the PLB or EPIRB by pressing the distress button on the device. This will turn on a flashing light and an audible alarm to indicate that the device is working.
  2. Distress Signal Transmission: Once activated, the PLB or EPIRB begins transmitting a distress signal on designated frequencies. The signal contains encoded data, including the unique identification number of the device and other relevant information. The device will continue to transmit until the battery runs out or it is turned off.
  3. Satellite Reception: Satellites in the COSPAS-SARSAT system detect and receive the distress signal transmitted by the PLB or EPIRB. The COSPAS-SARSAT system is a global network of satellites and ground stations that provide search and rescue services for distress signals from beacons.
  4. Data Encoding: The distress signal contains encoded data, including the unique identification number of the device and other relevant information. The unique identification number is registered with the New Zealand Beacon Database, which contains details about the owner and contact persons of the device.
  5. Satellite Relaying: The COSPAS-SARSAT satellites relay the distress signal and encoded data to the nearest ground station.
  6. Ground Station Reception: The nearest ground station receives the distress signal from the satellite and decodes the encoded data, retrieving critical information about the distress signal’s origin and unique identifier.
  7. Alerting RCCNZ: The ground station forwards the distress signal information, including the device’s unique identifier, to the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ). RCCNZ is responsible for coordinating all major maritime and aviation search and rescue missions within New Zealand’s search and rescue region. Rescue Coordination Centre
  8. Return Link Service or RLS enables newly approved EPIRB, PLB, and ELT allowing for a confirmation signal (Example: blue light flashing) or message if the beacon has a digital display that the distress signal from the beacon has been received and localized by the COSPAS-SARSAT system and forwarded to government authorities for action. It does NOT mean that a rescue has yet been organized/launched, only that the distress alert has been received and routed to the appropriate government agencies. NB This is only available on devices that have RLS capabilities.
  9. Distress Location Determination: RCCNZ utilizes the information received to determine the location associated with the distress signal. Depending on the type of device and satellite coverage, this can be done by using GPS coordinates, Doppler shift calculations or triangulation methods.
  10. Beacon Owner Identification: Based on the device’s unique identifier, RCCNZ identifies the owner of the PLB or EPIRB and gathers additional details, such as the associated vessel or aircraft, intended destination, number of people on board, emergency contacts and any medical conditions.
  11. Search and Rescue Asset Deployment: RCCNZ deploys appropriate search and rescue assets, such as helicopters, search and rescue aircraft, vessels, and ground-based teams, to the location indicated by the distress signal. RCCNZ Deployment of Assets
  12. Search and Rescue Operation: Coordinating with various agencies and assets, RCCNZ initiates a search and rescue operation to locate and assist you based on the information available. NZSAR Partner Assets

As you can see, activating a PLB or EPIRB can make a huge difference in your survival chances if you are in trouble.

There are some important things to remember when using these devices:

  • You should only activate a PLB or EPIRB when you are in a life-threatening situation and have no other means of communication.
  • You should register your device with the New Zealand Beacon Database before using it and update your details regularly.
  • You should test your device periodically according to the manufacturer’s instructions and replace the battery when needed.
  • You should carry your device on your person at all times when in remote or hazardous areas.
  • You should not move away from your location after activating your device unless it is absolutely necessary for your safety.
  • You should turn off your device when you are no longer in danger or when instructed by RCCNZ.

I hope this post has given you some useful information about how PLBs and EPIRBs work in New Zealand. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to email.

Be sure to visit the NZSAR and RCCNZ websites for more information

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