EPIRB testing, definitely possible
While evidence of unusual EPIRB failure activity remains scarce, who doesn’t like the idea of testing their own, as often and as thoroughly as possible? So I always try to note what a new model’s self-test abilities are (though I didn’t have much detail on these GME PLBs just coming to the States). But even the best self-testing is surely limited. There are also professional test receivers—like Musson Marine’s and the WS Tech BT100 PDA-hosted systems—which measure real over-the-air 406/121.5 MHz transmissions, but I don’t know how available that service is to regular boaters. Anyone? Both GME and WS Tech, by the way, are distributed in the U.S. by EPIRB/PLB expert George Lariviere and his Whiffletree Corp.
Meanwhile, Chuck Husick had a reassuring experience having his EPIRB battery changed right in the ACR factory. But what really activated my buttons was the BeaconSure service I saw demonstrated at the Annapolis Boat Show back in 2003. The vendor fired off the EPIRB during a preset hour and was soon able to pull up the screen above showing that it had reached the satellites, been located, and been properly associated with the right contact information. In other words, a live end-to-end test, which seems ideal. BeaconSure, not surprisingly, is a subsidiary of Techno-Sciences, which builds and maintains COSPAS-SARSAT ground stations. I haven’t heard much about the service since I first covered it in 2004, but $60 seems a reasonable fee for such a test, and no shipping is required. Anyone tried BeaconSure?
So EPIRBS are being tested to some degree and possible real world failures are being investigated to some degree, and still there’s no sign of anything but very rare issues with the equipment or SARSAT system. Nonetheless Rob Stormer insists that we should force the authorities to somehow calculate an EPIRB “failure rate.” I’m still scratching my head over that concept. How are any meaningful statistics remotely possible for gear that’s hardly ever used, and then in chaotic conditions? Heck, last summer a truly sharp engineer told me that no marine electronic or power products are built, used, and serviced in large enough numbers to yield worthwhile failure rate data, and he’d really thought about it. Compare EPIRBs to automobile air bags. There are many more air bags built; many more are activated, and with many fewer installation or user variables; and their use is much easier to investigate after the fact. Obviously meaningful failure rates are much more possible for airbags, yet lawyers are still arguing about what they mean.
A prudent mariner will smile on Stormer’s failure rate fantasy, take good care of his/her EPIRB, test it as possible, and still know that it, like most anything else, may fail just when it’s most needed.