EPIRB failures II, the flame war


Well, if I’m going to post on Memorial Day, I guess a war sub-text is appropriate. You see, Rob Stormer got very upset about what I thought was a polite, if argumentative, commentary on his EPIRB failure “investigation”. His displeasure is pretty vivid in the rebuttal he posted today, but you should have heard him yell at me over the phone on Friday! Now normally I avoid such combat, but I can dish it out, and it seems worthwhile in this case because illuminating Stormer’s ongoing errors does shed some light on this important safety subject. Two glaring examples from his rebuttal:

First, regarding his F/V Illusion failure reference, Stormer now claims that an “EPIRB once launched should transmit a signal within a quarter of a second and then transmit every 50 seconds and…The USCG should not have had to do further investigation to find out that the Illusion was fishing in Makushin Bay, because the initial signal should have enabled the calculation for the general geographical location, enough to at least launch the Alert C-130 or alert aircraft to obtain a fix.  In the case of a GPIRB the extra positioning data accelerates the localization….”
   Sorry, but that betrays a fairly profound misunderstanding of EPIRB technology. Of course the unit can transmit its programmed ID the second it’s turned on, but its location is determined by fast, low-flying satellites that measure its changing signal strength as they pass. It takes at least two birds to get a rough fix, and that takes some time. And even if the Illusion’s EPIRB had had the GPS option, that takes time too, as the receiver must find the GPS satellites from a cold start and probably in difficult conditions (not just rough water, but from inside a device that’s also transmitting 5 watts of 406 MHz signal). Stormer was already confused about EPIRB details, managing in a “WebExclusive” to suggest that all “modern” ones include GPS, even though most of the entry is copied from the USCG’s NavCen, which of course makes no such claim. Finally, it took two minutes of searching on “F/V Illusion” to learn that soon after the CG cleverly used the boat’s contact info to find its location, “a second satellite pass confirmed” it. In short, Illusion’s EPIRB seems to have worked as expected—by most everyone but Stormer.

Then there’s the F/V Ellie B. Today Stormer gives us a link that actually mentions the vessel and then he goes on to rant about how its “EPIRB is reported not to have launched because of a faulty trigger mechanism” and how worthy that is of investigation…blah, blah, blah. The giant embarassment is that he misread his own reference. The Ellie B. sank on a breakwater, no EPIRB involved; the actual F/V with the possible faulty EPIRB “trigger” was the Adriatic, and its sinking was thoroughly investigated. The USCG even sent divers down, and the casualty report reads thus:

The EPIRB transmitted a signal, but did not deploy and float to the surface.  A pin in the hydro release had not been replaced in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendation.

In fact, that investigation and several others were all rolled into an impressive, and hopefully persuasive, USCG publication called “Living to fish, Dying to fish”, available in PDF or .DOC formats here. And some of its key recommendations—like taking good care of your EPIRB—are repeated in this annual Maritime Casualty report (PDF). What’s more, a simple search for either fishing vessel yields all sorts of info on these accidents which Stormer apparently missed—like this scuba site where I found the picture above—and which, incidentally, all happened almost 10 years ago!

Conclusion? Stormer’s sloppy Ellie B./Adriatic example does not illustrate why Congress should push the Coast Guard to better investigate EPIRBs problems, as he claims, but instead how the USCG already does such investigations when appropriate. It also suggests how deeply shoddy and biased his investigative reporting really is. A motivated high school student could do better, and more balanced, Web research in a day than he’s managed in a year. Stormer’s “investigation” sure looks like a self-aggrandizing vendetta—facts and critics be damned—and nothing but a disservice to mariners, equipment manufacturers, the USCG, and the whole SARSAT community.


Ben Ellison

Ben Ellison

Panbo editor, publisher & chief bottlewasher from 4/2005 until 8/2018, and now pleased to have Ben Stein as a very able publisher, webmaster, and editing colleague. Please don't regard him as an "expert"; he's getting quite old and thinks that "fadiddling fumble-putz" is a more accurate description.

12 Responses

  1. Aaron Lynch says:

    Ben, you are a gentleman and a scholar.

  2. norse says:

    This might be a good time to read the USCG EPIRB page:
    There are lots of obsolete types.
    The current type uses several sets of satellites.
    If your EPIRB does not have a GPS, the geostationary satellites can pick up your signal right away, but if it does not have a GPS “alerting may be delayed as much as an hour or two” until a polar orbiting satellite picks up the signal. It uses two passes.
    The Wikipedia page is good too, with more details of how the EPIRBs work.

  3. norse says:

    Here’s a current news item about an EPIRB search.
    “A search is underway east of Eddystone Lighthouse for the racing yacht ‘Clarionet’ after Falmouth Coastguard received a 406mhz EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons), detection alert.”
    But without any location (obviously) because they are “currently coordinating a 55 square mile search” based on last known position.

  4. Midwest says:

    What a relief to get some fresh air. There is a definite subgroup of people who like shouting about safety related issues with almost no actual understanding of them, partly because I think it’s easy to draw attention.
    The shame is that for boaters who are not very versed in the space, these type of fly-by-night investigations are HIGHLY confusing.
    There is research which is looking to prove a point, and distorts all facts to match. Then there is real research, interested in actually finding something new out.
    Something I thought was very telling, and indicates that Rob Stormer probably cares more about headlines than actual safety was this quote:
    “Mr. deLutz never told ACR that he declined their offer. What Mr. deLutz has done is to keep his options open.”!
    Wow, straight from the lawyer talk playbook! Those of us who actually boat know that inaction is itself a form of action. What he is saying is I’m not declining to let you investigate, I’m just keeping my options open by not letting you investigate. This is no straight talking safety expert.
    I think it’s safe to say that folks looking for some safety while sailing will keep Rob and other supporters of “keeping their options open” by failing to allow investigations (and then later crying about the investigations not happening) as far away from our boats as humanly possible.

  5. Preston Calvert says:

    Good job, Ben. Sometimes the truth hurts…

  6. Richard C says:

    I have a GPIRB made by Northern Airborne Technologies that is one of the very first produced, (almost ten years old). Is it possible the frequencies and satellites it is programed to send data to are obsolete? I know satellites and the system have evolved over time and this unit is not programable. Could it be possible many of the older GPIRBS need replacing by now?

  7. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Richard, I’m pretty sure your NAT GEPIRB uses current 406 technology, but maybe needs servicing? NAT is still going, see http://www.northernairborne.com/, and if they can’t help you might try George Lariviere, contact info in today’s post. He’s credited with inventing the GEPIRB category when he worked for NAT.
    And thanks to all for comments and support. If you’re keeping track of my flaming nemesis, maybe you’ll agree that we seem to have reached the Monty Python phase?

  8. Russ says:

    Flamers crave attention, no need to feed the fire.

  9. Dan (b393capt) says:

    Was a brave and well executed decision to call this guy on the issue in such a big way.
    In some disagreement with Russ .. I went over to the other site to see if I could fan the flames / feed the fire a little.
    I was surprised at how bizarre the latest post was, and left realizing I would need a super tanker to get the flames any higher … as he seems to be doing a tremendous amount to discredit himself on his own now.

  10. tedwesley says:

    What this whole rant shows is that many folks do not take the time to learn how the safety systems
    in place work, and further that maintaining their
    equipment is crucial. When I look at our sale of EPIRBs I find that we have sold hundreds of them, yet our sales of hydrostatic releases (which must be replaced every 2 years) doesn’t come close to the number that you would expect given the EPIRB population. The same is true of battery replacements (every five years). If the Coast Guard didn’t inspect these units on fishing vessels and give out citations,the numbers would be worse.

  11. Sandy says:

    We teach our children critical skills to distinguish scholarship and objectivity from grand obsessions or outright scams. But the internet has a serious failing, in that both can appear equally well presented with wonderfully prepared web sites, lots of official-looking endorsements, and multitudinous assertions of propriety. But in the end we can always tell the genuine article from the imposter; the crooks ask for money, and the grand illusions ask for divine retribution!

  12. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Vindication! It turns out that “Rob Stormer” — whose bombastic bs about EPIRBs I dared to doubt — is in fact a complete con man:

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