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LIFESAVING TECHNOLOGY

Winter is the deadliest time of year for mariners in the Gulf of Mexico. But powerboaters and sailors can increase their chance of survival when disaster strikes by carrying the necessary safety equipment. Satellite Detectable Emergency Beacons have dropped in price in recent years and are now accessible to the average water-sport enthusiast.

SARSAT system

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration operates the Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking System to locate distressed mariners, aviators and land-based users almost anywhere in the world. NOAA's satellites pick up distress signals and transmit via land-based receivers to alert rescue services. NOAA-SARSAT is part of the international COSPAS-SARSAT program which has 36 nations and two independent search and rescue organizations.

SARSAT rescue totals:

Number of persons rescued last year in the United States as of December: 246

Aviation rescues

4 lives saved

Personal locator beacon (PLB) rescues

27 lives saved

Rescues at sea

215 lives saved

United States rescues since 1982: 4,903 persons

Worldwide rescues since 1982: Over 18,000 persons

Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon

An EPIRB is an electronic device stowed on a boat to emit an emergency signal.

+ Newer model frequencies are 406MHz and offer more global coverage than the older 121.5MHz models.

+ Plans to terminate 121.5 / 243MHz processing is planned for the year 2009, giving users enough time to transition to the 406MHz beacon.

+ EPIRBS can be programed with the vessel's ID number. Rescuers can try to get in touch with owner, which cuts the false alarm rate to less than 5%.

+ It is weighted to automatically right itself. It will float and transmit in an upright position with the antenna pointed toward the sky.

+ EPIRBS are available in two categories: Category I is automatically deployed. Catergory II is manually deployed. Both are activated when submerged in water.

+ All devices should be used as a last resort _ for Mayday use only.

RapidFix 406MHz EPIRB with GPS interface.

1 EPIRB distress call

Emergency beacon is utilized by distressed mariner.

2 Satellites

The distress signal is transmitted to satellites like the LEOSAR (polar orbiting) and GEOSAR (geostationary) satellite systems.

3 Local user terminal

Satellites relay the message to a ground station on earth. The location is then calculated by measuring the Doppler shift caused by the relative movement between the satellite and the beacon.

4 Mission control center

The location is forwarded to mission control, where additional satellite information is passed, further refining the beacon position.

5 Rescue coordination center

The appropriate rescue center is now notified of the existence of an emergency. The closest capable search and rescue forces are then deployed.

Additional safety devices

While EPIRBS are more effective and reasonably priced than they were 10 years ago, the hottest seller in the rescue market is the personal locator beacon. Small and lightweight, a PLB can be easily carried in the pocket of a personal flotation device. But mariners should have more than one line of defense. The following items are essential for any survival kit.

RapidDitch

This lifesaver from ACR Electronics has all the safety equipment you'll need in one compact bag. Keep it stowed below decks, then break it out in the event of an emergency.

Flag

A signal flag, when held vertically or laid on the surface of the water, will help rescuers find you at sea.

Strobe

Smaller strobes are available to attach to a PFD. Waterproof and inexpensive, ACR's C-Strobe can be either pinned or secured with a Velcro strap.

AquaFix

This PLB must be activated manually. The user must also extend the antenna and point it toward the sky. But the AquaFix is small, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive _ less than $700.

Whistle

It doesn't matter if you are kayaking, fishing or sailing in blue water, a whistle should be attached to every PFD.

Firefly

A good strobe light is an essential component of any survival kit. ACR's Firefly is rugged, waterproof and will burn for eight hours.

Flare

Flares come in a variety of shapes and sizes. These small, compact flares from Orion fit in a ditch bag or PFD pocket.

Mirror

Along with a whistle, a signal mirror is another inexpensive, yet essential piece of equipment for a PFD.

Sources: United States Coast Guard, NOAA and ACR Electronics, Inc.

ILLUSTRATIONS BY TERESANNE COSSETTA OF THE TIMES

TEXT BY TERRY TOMALIN & TERESANNE COSSETTA

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