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Safe at Sea: EPIRB — a sequel

By Staff | Aug 20, 2019


A few weeks ago, a Safe at Sea column answered the question, “Why would you buy an EPIRB?” If you read it, you were reminded that an EPIRB is an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon.

No sooner did that column print than a local EPIRB rescue occurred. A 30-foot vessel was out in the Gulf of Mexico about 30 miles offshore. The weather quickly turned ugly, and the engines failed to start. Fortunately, the captain had on board an EPIRB, and – again – the U.S. Coast Guard and other assisting agencies completed a successful search-and-rescue at sea. In short, tragedy averted.

While that column did a solid (though elementary) job of explaining how the positioning system works, it did not cover the “other side of the story” – the rescue steps begin immediately once a distress signal is received and the heroic steps that are taken by the search-and-rescue teams.

Once an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) alert is received by NOAA (all EPIRB alerts travel via satellite to NOAA), NOAA is in immediate contact with the Coast Guard station closest to the boat’s GPS position. In the Sanibel-Captiva area, it is the station located on Fort Myers Beach.

Depending on the complexity of distress (size of ship, distance from Coast Guard, et cetera), rescue ships are directed to the vessel’s position. However, if the Coast Guard determines that local assistance is needed, it connects with the Marine Emergency Response Team (MERT); locally, that is the Lee County MERT.

Further responders include the:

– Lee County Sheriff’s Office (the Captiva fire district now has a rescue boat)

– Sanibel Fire and Rescue District (which has two boats ready at all times to assist)

– U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

– S.E.R.A.T. (Sanibel Emergency Response Assistance Team, coordinated by America’s Boating Club)

On the water, the Coast Guard is at the top of the command structure and coordinates the above assets. Once all of the above report back on what assets they can deploy, they are given search-and-rescue instructions by the Coast Guard. All of the above are SAR-trained and have a specialty. For example, fire and rescue have EMTs and divers; likewise, the LCSO has divers, et cetera.

Further, the Coast Guard may deploy aircraft (search) and helicopters (rescue) that are equipped to air lift, drop pumps, life rafts and have specifically trained EMTs.

In short, EPIRB to NOAA to Coast Guard to additional responders to rescue is a complex, well-trained/rehearsed and vital key to keeping everyone safe at sea. To the brave and diligent members of these teams, we all owe a huge debt of gratitude.

Pat Schmidt is a member of America’s Boating Club of Sanibel-Captiva. For more about the chapter and the courses it offers, visit www.sancapboating.club or contact education@sanibelcaptivasps.org or 239-985-9472.