Personal Locator Beacons or PLBs are a great lifesaving device which can bring rescuers right to your location in the event of an emergency. Just like Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs) on aircraft and Emergency Position Indicting Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) on boats, once activated PLBs transmit a digital signal to the SARSAT System. This signal contains information which positively identifies the individual beacon which has been set off (sort of like a serial number). The signal might also contain your GPS location, if your PLB has a GPS function (this is the best kind of PLB to buy!). If your PLB doesn’t have GPS then the Satellite system will have to try to determine as accurately as possible by itself.
In an emergency NOAA is your friend!
In the United States the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the agency which monitors and receives signals from the SARSAT satellite system when distress beacons like Personal Locator Beacons are set off.
When NOAA receives a signal that a PLB has been set off the message sent by the PLB contains the information that l mentioned above. Which if it doesn’t contain GPS data is not a lot to initially go on, it could take the satellite system an hour or more to determine exactly where your PLB is located if it has no internal GPS data. In an emergency situation minutes can save lives, so it’s important for rescuers to determine as soon as possible exactly what is going on.
In order to accomplish this NOAA maintains a registration database of all of the emergency beacons (PLBs, ELTs, and EPIRBS) in the United States. Beacon owners can send in both their contact information and info on their emergency contacts via several different means.
While registering your 406MHz distress beacon is the smart thing to do, you are actually required to do so. You could in fact receive a penalty or fine if you don’t register it and then use it!
Instant Information for Searchers
When you set off your Personal Locator Beacon (in a distress situation) the signal I mentioned is sent to the satellite system which then sends it to NOAA ground stations (in the US). Once received the PLB’s message is then automatically paired with its registration data from the database and forwarded to the US Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC).
The AFRCC then immediately begins to try to determine if someone is actually in distress or if the alert is a false alarm (the majority are). They do this by attempting to call the beacon owner with the information on the registration. They’ll try your home, cell, work numbers (whatever you’ve given) to attempt to contact you. If they can’t reach you they’ll move on to the alternate contacts to see if they know what you are up to. These contacts should be people who will know what you are doing and where you’ll be i.e. you are out hiking and in what area.
You should list family and/or friends that can be easily contacted (e.g., carry a cell phone, or are usually available at work or at home) and would have knowledge about where you camp, hunt, fly, etc.
Finding out this way that you actually or might be in an emergency situation is the fastest way to get help heading your way when needed!
An Information Age
The beauty of the NOAA Online Beacon Database is that you can log back in at any time to update your information based on what you are doing. You should also update your entries when you or your contacts change addresses or phone numbers or you want to change who will be an additional contact for you.
Besides general contact information, you can also input how you plan to use your PLB, such as Hiking, Hunting, Fishing, or Other (with a spot to say what that is). There is also section for “Additional Data”, here you can enter a paragraph with much more detail about your plans. The more specific the better and because you can update your registration at any time you can change it based on what you are doing. Here are a couple of examples of what you could enter under additional data:
- I’ll be hiking south on the Appellation Trail starting on May 1st at Mount Katahdin Maine. I plan to travel 15 miles per day and hope to finish by the end of September in Georgia.
- I’m camping in Glacier National Park Montana from 5 through 12 August.
- I use my PLB while hunting on and around Beartown Mountain State Park in Berkshire County Massachusetts during the fall. In the summer I take it whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River in Colorado.
- This PLB is used as an emergency backup to my aircraft ELT on tail number N12345C, my home airport is Dayton Wright Brothers Airport (KMGY).
These are just a few examples, you can enter anything that you think would help those trying to assist you. This info is just to get help heading in the right direction in the initial uncertainty period, especially if the satellite system hasn’t reported your location yet. Stating what you are doing on your registration lends credence to the thought that this is actually a real emergency versus a false alarm, which most beacon activations are.
The NOAA Database
Every Personal Locator Beacon which is sold comes with NOAA registration paperwork, which can be completed then faxed or mailed in. Or PLB owners can go online and register their distress beacon immediately. Faxed and mailed registrations can take up to two business days to process once received by NOAA, online registrations take effect immediately.
Registration is free of charge!
The mailing address for Beacon Registrations is:
Department of Commerce
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
SARSAT Beacon Registration
1315 East West Hwy
Silver Spring, MD 20910-3282
The Registration Fax number is: (301) 817-4565
The web address for beacon registration is: https://beaconregistration.noaa.gov/rgdb/ Click on “New Registration.”
PLB owners who mail or fax in their registrations can go to the same web address afterwards to set up online access to their registration data.
Here are links to blank forms:
PLB Registration Form: https://beaconregistration.noaa.gov/rgdb/forms/plb.pdf (Handheld Beacons)
ELT Registration Form: https://beaconregistration.noaa.gov/rgdb/forms/elt.pdf (Aircraft Mounted Beacons)
EPIRB Registration Form: https://beaconregistration.noaa.gov/rgdb/forms/epirb.pdf (Boat or Vessel Mounted Beacons)
The registration information, and the corresponding proof-of-registration decal, is valid for two years. The FCC requires that you renew your registration every two years. However, you are encouraged to provide updates to your registration anytime it’s required.
This site recommends that you buy a PLB with GPS capability!
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