Using your PLB/EPIRB better & testing ACR’s ResQLink View
In this dangerous world, most types of boating are quite safe activities. But when things do go wrong afloat, getting the needed help can be a lot harder than it is ashore because of poor communications. So I was pleased to learn about an easy way to make the excellent safety communication tools known as PLBs and EPIRBs a little more effective.
The situation captured on the screen above was ACR’s Mikele D’Arcangelo briefing Ben Stein and I after their ResQLink View PLB was announced last spring. It’s a superb PLB, I think, and I’ll detail that opinion below. But I really sat up when Mikele suggested including timely “float plan” type information on a PLB registration form, as illustrated by his fishing trip with his dad. What an obviously good idea that had never occurred to me!
Actually, I did advocate for detailed PLB/EPIRB registrations back in 2012 largely because of a visit to the Miami USCG Command Center that handles many beacon activations. The watchkeepers there crave information. As great as PLBs and EPIRBs are at delivering a distress notification — and usually with accurate location, since built-in GNNS became common — they still only communicate one message in one direction and seven out of every eight beacon activations are false alerts (as NOAA cites in this PDF).
The USCG is adamant about quickly deploying assets to a potential distress location, and I’m sure other SAR groups are too, but the watchkeepers are also trying hard to verify an actual distress situation. And all they have to work with is the registration data associated with the beacon ID. They’ll try to call you and the emergency contacts listed; in the case of an EPIRB registered to a boat, they might contact authorities in your home harbor; and, heck, they’ll even look you up on Facebook all in an effort to:
- Determine if you purposely activated the PLB (or the associated boat purposely activated the EPIRB), and
- To collect any detail that might help the first responders to best deal with your particular distress situation
And doesn’t it make sense that a SAR crew confidant that it’s not just chasing down another false alert is even more motivated? So, yes, do register your beacon with NOAA — or here if outside the U.S. — and don’t be shy with details and timely updates.
With all that in mind, here’s the current registration for the ResQLink View that ACR sent me. It’s unlikely that anyone at NOAA or in a rescue center will ever read it unless the beacon gets activated, but do note my reference to “hiking remote islands.”
A few years ago, after anchoring off little Frenchboro Harbor on Long Island and hiking the bold south coast to the east end, I realized how very exposed we were. With zero cell phone service and probably no humans within a twisty rocky trail mile or two, what was the play if one of us took a bad fall? Maine is blessed with the wonderful LifeFlight rescue helicopter service — see “Healers in the Sky” by my favorite journalist — but they can’t help if we can’t ask.
While my best mate doesn’t much care much for such dire “what if” thinking, I can quietly come up with all sorts of scenarios where activating a PLB might save us from great harm, on the water and off. And figuring that moderate paranoia is a good thing, as in navigation, I even worry about whether a PLB will actually work when needed, or if I’ll remember how to use it in a tense situation. But the ResQLink seems good in both departments.
Testing the ResQLink View
The ResQLink View, second from left above, is the third PLB that ACR has let Panbo long test, and I also have that orange RescueMe PLB1 manufactured by Ocean Signal, which is now part of the ACR Artex safety group. And they all seem to be working fine, despite seriously past-due battery replacements in two cases, which I consider evidence of excellent build quality and reliability.
In fact, the big AquaLink View PLB that I wrote about in 2010 is over three years beyond its six-year battery life and can still pass its regular and GPS self-tests. And the ResQLink+ received in early 2012 also tests fine with a battery that expired early last year. I’m not suggesting that anyone else ignore safety gear battery expirations but this performance is impressive.
While you can see in the group photo that the RescueME PLB1 is amazingly small — and its whole design impressed me in 2012 — this comparison shows features of the two new ResQLink PLBs that might motivate you to carry the extra bulk on your life vest (if you use a PLB that way). Note that the added infrared strobe should really pop in the night vision devices that some SAR personnel use and that are on some vessels.
Also, this comparison chart only shows part of the ACR/OceanSignal PLB line. While the ResQLink+ I’m still testing has apparently been replaced, the two big AquaLink models are still available and transmit at 6.3 Watts with 35 hours of claimed battery life (probably exceeded).
The photo at left shows what I think to be an improved clip on the new ResQLink design; it attaches to the PLB more securely and also to your belt, backpack or life jacket strap. Also included is a clip that’s specially designed for the manual inflation tube of an inflatable life jacket that seems similarly secure both ways, plus the black rubber strap.
As with the AquaLink View in 2010 (and still going strong), I really like the informative little LCD display, both to understand the self-testing better than LEDs can show and because I know that even deeply experienced professionals can get confused about how to operate a device like this when, say, their catamaran flips at night offshore (which also discusses new AIS EPIRBs, so far exclusive to McMurdo).
At any rate, the photos above show the ResQLink completing a full GPS self-test outside my house. It figured out its location from a completely cold start outside my house in Maine in about 10 seconds, impressive, but you’ll see in the short video below that a decent sky view is necessary of course.
The ResQLink tried hard to make me position its GPS antenna better but finally gave up with useful information about how many more tests were possible. If you download the ResQLink 400 and View manual PDF, you’ll learn “The beacon has enough excess battery life to perform 60 self-tests over the 5 year life of the battery” and 20 GPS tests. (Incidentally, the Ocean Signal PLB1 is rated for 84 regular self-tests and 10 GPS tests, while the AquaLink View offers an amazing 420/60.)
I’ve developed significant confidence in PLB self-testing, both from my own experience — only an expected fail in my basement — and from the rarity of reported activation failures. But I also appreciate the 406Link service able to confirm that a PLB (or EPIRB) test signal burst gets to a ground station (though it’s currently sadly unavailable to new subscribers). And wouldn’t it be great if these distress beacons could simply display by LED– or, better yet, by LCD screen — an “alert received” confirmation?
Well, I hesitate to even mention it because the Galileo GNNS has a history of delays, but it does include a planned feature called Return Link Service and at least McMurdo thinks it will be working next year. It’s certainly a development worth watching, but note in the meantime that many ACR PLBs apparently support other MEOSAR improvements (cited above) that I believe to be coming online (and also deserving of more research). And the ResQLink View, in particular, is an excellent PLB right now, I think.