EPIRB failures, where’s the meat?


Is there a problem with EPIRBs? Robin Storm thinks so, and is even calling for a congressional investigation into what he perceives as an alarming number of failures and a flawed failure investigation system. But I read his whole report and, at the risk of sounding cranky, must ask: “Where’s the meat?” There are several supposed failures cited, none of which seem clearly the fault of the EPIRB itself or the COSPAS-SARSAT system:

* S/V Sean Seamour II: This is an interesting and complicated case. It seems that the boat’s main EPIRB, a 4.5-year-old ACR, only worked for a while and that it either sent out the wrong ID # (according to Robin in a Messing with Ships podcast) or the database registration was somehow messed up (more likely, I think), possibly by the boat’s owner. An 11–year-old back-up ACR worked for 10 hours and led to a dramatic rescue. ACR tells me that they offered to test the unit which was mistakenly attributed to an Alabama registration, but the Seamour’s owner declined.

* F/V Papa George: The assumption here is that the automatic hydrostatic activation found on Class A EPIRBs failed to work. But isn’t it possible that the unit failed to float free of the vessel? It’s really hard to mount an EPIRB where it will float free regardless of what the boat does, especially on fishing boats with lots of rigging. It strikes me that it’s always better to manually activate an EPIRB if possible.

* F/V Illusion: An initial USCG press release: “The Rescue Coordination Center, (RCC) in Juneau was notified that the crew was in trouble when the fishing vessel’s registered electronic position indicating radio beacon, (EPIRB) was picked up by satellite shortly after the Illusion’s crew abandoned ship. The EPIRB did not initially give a fix on the crew’s location, and the RCC was able to ascertain that the Illusion had been fishing in Makushin Bay through further investigation.” There’s no evidence of failure here at all; this is how EPIRBS without the GPS option work. First, a geostationary satellite gets the distress message, and then LEO sats use Doppler shifting to get a location, which generally takes about an hour.

* F/V Ellie B: Robin may have made a mistaken link here—I see no Ellie B.—but he uses this BoatUS page elsewhere in his report. It’s about issues with the GPS option on some EPIRBs and PLBs that were discovered back in 2003. Extensive research was done on this, especially by Doug Ritter, and some gear was updated as a result. But throughout that process, no one found any problems with the basic EPIRB functionality. The GPS option can definitely speed up a rescue, but it is not necessary to one. 

* F/V Sav-A-Buck: This is an initial newspaper report suggesting that an EPIRB that “should have signaled the Coast Guard that a lobster boat was sinking off the Isles of Shoals Sunday failed to send a distress signal when it hit the water…” Another hydrostatic activation failure? A more recent article suggests that the boat capsized—which would certainly make floating free difficult. But later the EPIRB floated up on a beach with other debris, so perhaps we’ll learn more. {Update, 5/27: Rob Stormer is grandly proclaiming that contrary to the Gloucester paper, the EPIRB has not been found. That makes sense, really, as it could very well be under the capsized boat, never given a chance to really fail.) 

So where’s the meat? I have no doubt that EPIRBs can and will fail some times—and the more backups the better—but the equipment and related SARSAT system have proven themselves amazingly able, and I don’t see any evidence in this report to think otherwise. You can check out recent incidents here, and running stats here.

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.

13 Responses

  1. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Bill T e-mailed this comment:
    You said: “So where’s the meat? I have no doubt that EPIRBs can and will fail some times­.”
    Perhaps so – but given the price and the fact that they are asked to work only once doesn’t give me good feelings. A lot is left to trusting the vendors involved, and I’m not totally sure all that trust is warranted. I’ve heard second hand tales about the quality of the internals on ACR stuff (more like a MacGregor than a Hinckley) and observe the recent issues of GPS hanging up when a new satellite was introduced into the configuration, and various prior systematic issues with certain versions of software.
    I would feel a lot better if someone at various places ( West marine stores, or major marinas) had the capability to independently power the gps and confirm that it was good output, and independently check the battery voltage. Independent power so as to not run down the main battery with checking.
    Also note the story of that one RI based liferaft vendor that totally messed up repacking – just shows you how much we can actually trust the vendors on the sort of stuff like this. See this.
    From Boat/US: “The horror stories that led to the proposed rules were several incidents in Rhode Island and Connecticut by repack facilities no longer in business. Customers who later opened their serviced canisters found their liferafts replaced by older models and one owner found the canister filled with old sails. A Coast Guard investigation of one company in Newport, RI, found 19 liferafts inadequately serviced. Of them, 16 had missing equipment, five had defective carbon dioxide cylinders, and 17 contained items that had expired.
    These incidents led the Coast Guard to seek criminal prosecution, which was not pursued, but the agency did issue public safety alerts about the companies involved.”

  2. John says:

    When you’re 1000+ plus miles at sea with 30+ people aboard even the smallest safety concern has “meat”., but I can see your perspective. Regardless of the facts we asked for Panbo’s help in publicizing the problem because Jean Pierre de Lutz (a small boat sailor) lost his vessel the Sean Seymour II (see this photo of Jean: http://tinyurl.com/5aa7uq) over one year ago and is still very concerned…. which makes me and the staff at gCaptain concerned.
    My personal worry lies mostly with how good this system is. It’s a major lifesaver and the **NUMBER 1** most important piece of electronic equipment carried on all vessels, regardless of size. So even a low percentage of failures is troubling.
    I can’t speak for Robin but most of my worries are centered around the operator. We do not know the cause of Jean’s EPIRB failure but we do know that if he had checked the registration data prior to departure this would be less of an issue now.
    Boaters and commercial mariners (including my past self) alike frequently make the following mistakes that trouble me:
    – They don’t check their registration details with enough frequency.
    – They don’t usually cross check the serial number with the registration database.
    – They replace batteries on old equipment rather than buying new units.
    – They don’t know the difference between gpirbs, epirbs, plb’s (I know I’m speaking to the choir on this point)
    and the number one concern: *-They don’t think about redundancy of equipment*
    I also have smaller concerns that should be addressed by manufacturers.
    – Lithium Ion Shelve Life
    – Lithium Ion batteries are difficult to test – no battery count in an epirb (I have to confirm this)
    Here are my worries about the regulatory authorities:
    -No evidence of random testing of equipment for failures (could be done during annual inspections).
    -No autopsies are mandated with regards to failed epirbs.
    -Very few mariners are alive to tell us if an epirb failed or was improperly set up (e.g. Jim Gray).
    I don’t want to put words into Robin’s mouth but the call for a Congressional report is not because of what we know or have found but due to the lack of information about failures. For the record both gCaptain and Robin Storm think very highly of the SARSAT system and believe an epirb should be aboard every vessel that goes to sea. Our comments should not discourage you in anyway from using the system but, at the very least, informing the public with regards to potential for failure should help educate the community. This is our primary goal.
    Regardless of the outcome of our investigation there are a few steps you can take to assure your safety:
    – Store your epirb topside in a protected cabinet with a hydrstatic release.
    – Have a redundant means of getting help. A PLB or spare epirb is best but there are other solutions as well (staying within CHF range, traveling in pairs, SPOT Messenger…).
    – Check your registration information by giving NOAA http://www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov/ or if you don’t own the boat yourself call and give NOAA the serial number directly to verify the data.
    Remember the time to check registration is now, at the start of the boating season. Your primary means of safety is preparation as you will not have time to go below to retrieve, inspect and learn how to use the unit when the unexpected happens.
    -Captain John Konrad

  3. norse says:

    John said “lithium ion”, but I’m sure he meant to say “lithium”. Lithium ion batteries are nice for laptops, but they self-discharge in a few months; they are rechargeable. Lithium batteries are not rechargeable but they have a much longer shelf life. ACR says replace at 5 years. Energizer claims a 15 year shelf life. There is a huge variety of chemistries used for lithium batteries, so shelf life will depend on the particular battery used.

  4. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    My understanding is that the regulations require EPIRB battery life—and, hence, replacement schedule—to be set at one half or less of the battery’s designed “shelf life”. Which sounds like a smart regulation to me.
    I also understand that, in fact, EPIRB failures often are investigated. I know that at least the USCG always tries to recover them. I also think that litigation, as may be taking place in the Sean Seamour II case, can be a valid and effective way to detect substandard manufacturing, servicing or whatever, if it exists.
    And, in cases like Dr. Gray’s, can’t we apply some deductive reasoning? He and his boat vanished fairly near San Francisco without a mayday or any debris, and were the subject of an extraordinary search. What are the chances that Gray’s EPIRB was deployed but failed to function?
    As for Bill’s reference to the horribly service life rafts, I remember that case vividly and thought the perpetrators should have been hung. But it was a small group of very bad eggs involved, and a very unusual case in the field of safety. I can not imagine a large manufacturing enterprise going so bad, and certainly not for very long without someone who cared blowing a whistle.

  5. norse says:

    It’s hard to come to any conclusion in the Jim Gray case. Except one: He would have saved his family and the world (and perhaps himself) a lot of trouble if he had had a Class B AIS transponder. So we would know where to look when he disappeared (with or without an EPIRB signal), and which ships were in that area. My best guess is an outbound ship hit him and never noticed. Like in this recent incident:
    “Netherlands. Yacht sinks after collision with freighter. […] Police in Terneuzen have arrested the captain and first mate of a Cypriot registered cargo vessel, which rammed a yacht during the night. […] The captain and first mate said they were not aware of hitting anything.”
    Luckily for that crew, it did not sink right away.

  6. JP de Lutz says:

    I hope you are enjoying your pissing match; it is quite shocking to watch the real issue of dependability of EPIRBS smothered in such a shouting match. Whether all the examples of Robin Storm are correct or not, the fact is there are such cases. I have to remind those that perhaps have not thought the process through that the most likely outcome of a faulty EPIRB in critical conditions is a new “lost at sea” entry to a list already too long. Those cases will never be investigated – without a backup EPIRB Sean Seamour’ crew would be among them.
    Compounding the issue of the EPIRB malfunction is the fact that it came back from recertification a week prior to the events. Further compounding the issue: the hexadecimal code belonged to another boat. Upon launch of the GPIRB the Coast Guard investigated the database info and contacted the owner, deducted a faulty EPIRB on that other vessel and dropped pursuit of that signal hence abandoned search and rescue for my vessel.
    A few days after the rescue, my crew safely home, I contacted ACR – they were more than expecting my call, informing me “this has happened before”, fingering responsibility elsewhere, anxious to get their hands on my GPIRB. With ten broken ribs and two back compressions I was not about to run from Cape Cod to Fort Lauderdale for a postmortem, especially with alarm bells ringing in my head as they were. I told them I would get back to them and may still. Surprisingly, never once has ACR sought to make contact of any sort, yet they have been very attentive to my activities over the past year, blocking some of my initiatives.
    Now Mr. Ellison, I cannot understand the zealous effort you are putting into discrediting this initiative of concerned mariners (and administrations I must add). To naysay away even the hypothesis is irresponsible. As the starting point of this debate is Sean Seamour’ GPIRB I would have thought you would want to obtain first hand information from me to formulate your own opinion. It is obvious that such was not your intent; you likely have some other motive. As sadly for the marine community at large such has not been the case, one can only wonder why.

  7. Jon Hill says:

    Ben –
    Thought your “where’s the meat” post was accurate, rational and polite. If JP would like a good example of “zealous effort” he ought to check out Robin Storm’s rabid rebuttal.
    If Robin Storm and gCaptain expect a near zero failure rate, it could be done but few of us would be able to afford even the simplest of EPIRB’s. And that still wouldn’t prevent us dummies from registering incorrectly (if at all), installing incorrectly, or expecting miracles in an automatic release from an upside down boat.
    Until there’s some proof of a unreasonable rate of EPIRB problems other than user induced problems I’d like to think Congress was tasked with more important things to do.

  8. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    JP, Please call me Ben, and thank you for posting on Panbo. As to your incident, I’m very curious as to what exactly happened regarding your two EPIRBs, and I think I read pretty much everything Stormer has posted on it, and I searched on it myself.
    As I’ve explained in the past—sometimes to ticked-off manufacturers—I almost never do deeper, interview-type reporting for these blog entries because I simply can not afford the time. I am, however, attentive to criticism and try to fix blog mistakes quiclkly.
    At any rate, please feel free to email me info via the “suggest” address on Panbo’s front page. I’m particularly curious about your evidence that the USCG actually ceased your search because of the owner/ID# mix up. I thought that their protocol was to err in the other direction.
    And, by the way, I did not call ACR about your EPIRB. Actually, they called me on an entirely different subject, and, having just read Stormer’s “investigation”, I asked about Sean Seamour. Of course, Stormer jumped to conclusions about my ACR reference, but he does that, doesn’t he?
    In fact, his angry email accusation was that I “write to please electronic masters”! I guess he meant to shame me, but (sorry, Rob) I’m still chuckling over the vision of robotic marine electronics executives giving me my marching orders.
    You seem to be making quick and negative assumptions about me, too, JP (and I gather from Stormer that he gives you “guidance”). I hope you’ll check those fast reactions against my work. There’s ton of my writing, reporting, research, etc. here and elsewhere on the Web.
    I write, in fact, for guys like you, though I do respect most everyone who in any way serves the boating passion that I guess we share. I take my work seriously and I am a bit intolerant of writers and pr folks who do not, i.e. who seem to confuse boaters more than inform them.

  9. norse says:

    The case of JP’s boat “Sean Seamour II” deserves a calm investigation, starting with a better description of what actually happened. No one should be insulted by questions asked to clarify the matter. Questions are not at all the same thing as denial. The case is not convincing if there are too many open questions.
    The date of the incident is 7 May 2007. It is in the SARSAT reports here, but with the boat name as “Lou Pantai” because that was how the backup EPIRB was registered. There is no entry for the Sean Seamour EPIRB which failed, nor for the EPIRB registered to an Alabama boat. Where does the information about waking the Alabama owner up at 03:00 come from? It seems they don’t list any false alarms in the report.
    “They asked him to disconnect the battery… and the signal stop emitting at that approximate moment – about the same time my unit stopped functioning! Considering this, they decided to stop the search on this signal!”. Since there is no communication from the satellite to the EPIRB, it would be just coincidence if it stopped functioning at that moment. The other indications are that the battery near dead, so one would wonder if it ever successfully transmitted any signal at all. If the Alabama EPIRB was accidentally activated and transmission stopped when the battery was disconnected, then it sounds like that either unit was actually working, accidentally activated (if it had not been activated, then disconnecting the battery would not have stopped the transmission), or else the failed EPIRB did connect briefly but went dead just as they asked the Alabama owner to disconnect the battery. In either case we have a coincidence. It is possible that the battery lasted just the same amount of time it took to contact the Alabama owner. Some more evidence of those events would help the case.
    “the hexadecimal code belonged to another boat”.
    I don’t think this is meant to imply that the EPIRB was faulty in that it broadcast the wrong code (someone could check that now). An error in the database containing code and owner information is quite believable. But that is not at all a failure of the EPIRB itself. Someone could check that now, and the also the Alabama registration. Has a database error been confirmed? Another possibility is that those two units were accidentally switched during the service and some guy in Alabama has the real Sean Seamour EPIRB. It happens with babies in hospitals occasionally.
    What location information was sent in the message that was labeled as a false alarm?
    The last log entry of the Sean Seamour II with the details of the storm and the sinking is well worth reading.
    See also the USCG report and a short video of the rescue:
    From the info in the log, it seems the issue should be with the company which claimed to recertify the EPIRB (for just 6 months?), not with the manufacturer, and also with the company which registered the EPIRB.

  10. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    6 months? I missed that, but did get the vague idea that the certification center did not actually replace the battery, then 4.5 years old. Maybe that and a maximum 5 year replacement cycle explain the 6 month “certification”. Seems strange.
    Thanks for all the digging, Norse. So far, JP has declined to send me any further information on his case.

  11. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    A sailor who’d rather remain anonymous sent this interesting story:
    about 4 years ago our ACR epirb failed. it was in its pocket in our ACR overboard bag and the retaining slide keeping the switch turned off apparently parted – on its own – and turned the unit on. we learned of this when we were stopped by a venezuelan coast guard patrol boat.
    they told us our epirb was broadcasting which we found wrong until we fished it out and, yep, it was flashing. the guys then jury-rigged the switch back into the “off” position. when the “coasties” filed their report they said there was
    no outside force that set it off but rather the unit was “defective”.
    we contacted ACR and they said they never heard of this happening. they asked us to remove the battery (so we could air ship it) and send it back. when we opened it to remove the battery we notice severe crazing, cracking, and pieces
    broken off inside the unit. at that point it didn’t seem to be waterproof.
    we took pictures before sending it in. when we told ACR they only said we must have abused the unit. this could not have happened otherwise. believe me, this unit just sat “gently” in its overboard bag, nothing really pushing against it, and would only come out when we’d do a safety check before a passage or an overnighter.
    a few days later i mentioned our experience over the cruisers’ net in puerto la cruz. two boats responded saying they had examined their units earlier and found severe internal plastic failures. one boat, a british one, said they saw
    this problem while in the azores getting ready for the caribbean run. they, too, contacted ACR and received the same story we got … it was “abused”
    a few days after sending the unit in i was re-reading the ACR owner’s manual and noticed a small reference to checking the unit for “cracking”!
    the best part of the story was our three days “captive” at a VZ naval base while they reported to the u.s.c.g. they found our boat but we were “lost”, my big subsequent fine, my law suit in caracas against the port captain in p.l.c., my
    crooked lawyer, how we stole our epirb when VZ customs would not return it to us (that is without the uge bribe), etc. etc. etc.
    but we’ll save that story for when there’re a few beers on the table…

  12. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Jon Hill (see above) wrote with a startling report about his EPIRB registration:
    “As a result of your commentary on “….where’s the meat?” I looked up my EPIRB info and discovered I was out of date. Went to the NOAA site and it wouldn’t accept my EPIRB ID number and password so gave them a call. As it turns out, someone bought a used EPIRB and when registering it he missed the number by one digit and used my ID number. Both the registrant and NOAA assumed the previous owner failed to report the unit as sold so my EPIRB was registered to him.
    This must have happened some time before my initial registration expired so no update notice was sent to me, I didn’t remember the two year renewal and as a result have been depending on an EPIRB that wouldn’t have lead back to me if activated.
    As the NOAA guy explained, there are only four of them working on registrations and can only do so much. Apparently, users are pretty sloppy
    in reporting sold or transferred EPIRBS and they don’t have the manpower to investigate when one is re-registered. Not sure what the answer is other that to check on it once in a while but think I’ll recommend that they send out a notice to the original owner when one is registered by a new owner.”
    Panbo: news you can use (sometimes)! And I’m sure glad Jon did. And maybe something like this is what happened to JP’s EPIRB? He still hasn’t sent any information on why he’s so sure that the USCG curtailed its search because of the registration mix-up.

  13. JP de Lutz says:

    Some wanted to know where the meat was on this critical EPIRB issue, well the tip of the iceberg is emerging in the November issue of Soundings Magazine. Unfortunately the investigative data as related by the journalist is incomplete as the content is several months old and the investigation has moved forward by leaps and bounds, much more will be coming in the next few months. I will come back to this blog.

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