Library Fact Sheets
PREVENTING FALSE ALARMS - AFRCC|
Printable Fact Sheet
Only You Can Prevent False Alarms
OK, so we sort of ripped off the title from Smokey the Bear, but what Smokey says about forest fires also applies to all Satellite alerting emergency beacons. The vast majority of false alarms generated within the Cospas-Sarsat system originate from beacon users. This is by no means to suggest that most mariners and aviators are careless. In fact, most of these folks are meticulous and conscientious. The false alarm problem arises from a lack of knowledge. The solution lies in educating users about the negative effect of false alarms on the system and how to prevent them.
The following are some suggestions on how you (yes, you) can prevent false alarms. By doing so, you will increase the effectiveness of the very system your life may someday rely on! We can not stress the importance of this enough. Right now, we have a 90% false alarm rate for 406 MHz and a 98% rate for 121.5 MHz. Imagine your local "911" emergency system dealing with this. Responding to the false alarms would cause large delays in response time to real emergencies. Since lives are usually at stake, any delay can mean the difference between life and death. Cospas-Sarsat is not much different, although we are a high-tech, automated system, large volumes of false alerts can cost valuable minutes to people in distress. Every little bit does help! So please, read the recommendations below and follow them. Above all, use common sense.
FOR ELTs (aviation):
Always tune in 121.5 MHz on your comm radio before shutting down. If you hear a swept tone (sounds like a siren), then immediately switch off your ELT. Newer ELTs have a cockpit mounted switch, but for most, you will need to access the unit itself in the empennage. Once you have stopped the transmission, immediately dial your Flight Service Station (FSS) 1-800-WXBRIEF and inform them of your situation. Trust me, these folks will be glad to hear from you. Chances are, you will have secured your ELT before two satellite passes located it, and the FSS will not even get an alert message. If however, an alert was generated, you will have just saved them a lot of work and the taxpayers some money as well.
If you are buying a new aircraft, or updating the panel in an old one, consider purchasing a 406 MHz ELT. Although more expensive, these units give you a myriad of advantages, not the least of which is fewer false alarms. Once you have purchased your 406MHz ELT please ensure you promptly and properly register your beacon in the national database. If your beacon is activated SAR forces will know immediately who to contact for critical initial information.
Maintain your ELT regularly. At a recent aviation event in Alaska, free ELT testing was offered. Of the ELTs tested, less than half worked properly. Most of these were attributed to dead batteries. Low batteries can cause erroneous signals and generate false alarms. Conversely, false alarms can cause low batteries. So, make sure you've got strong batteries in your ELT. Your life may depend on it.
FOR 406 MHz EPIRBs (maritime):
Always test your EPIRB in strict accordance with the manufacturers recommendations. Most EPIRB activation switches have a test position. This test position allows the entire unit (electronics, battery, antenna) to be tested without generating a false alarm.
Ensure that your beacon is registered with NOAA. This does nothing to reduce false alarm rates, but does have a dramatic effect on the impact of a false alarm. If the EPIRB is properly registered, the situation will be resolved with a phone call 9 out of 10 times. It will also help speed rescue in an actual distress. If your EPIRB is not registered, a form is included in our homepage. It's free, easy, and it's the law, so please register your EPIRBs.
Affix your registration decal on the EPIRB so it can be easily read without taking the EPIRB out of its bracket. A surprising amount of false alarms are generated by people (sometimes Coast Guard safety inspectors) doing so to check the decal.
Never remove the EPIRB from its bracket without first switching it to the "Off" position (unless of course, you're actually in distress). Also, never allow it to be removed by others. A lot of false alarms are generated by curious passengers. Another common source of false alarms is from crewmembers removing the EPIRB to paint behind it.
Maintain your EPIRB. Ensure that the batteries are within their expiration date and that all manufacturer recommendations are followed.
Any time that the EPIRB is not on the vessel, it should be switched off. This avoids the embarrassing experience of having SAR forces converge on the trunk of your car.
Finally, realize that the Cospas-Sarsat satellites are very good at what they do...detecting emergency beacons. In the western hemisphere, activation of a 406 MHz EPIRB for just a few seconds will usually be detected. After a few minutes, it will usually be detected and located. This is good if you're in distress, but if you're not, you just generated a false alarm.
The bottom line is this. As with any piece of safety gear, it's only as good as the person operating it. Spend some time to familiarize yourself with your ELT or EPIRB. Ask yourself if and how it will work in a real situation, and know how to use it. Finally, know how to prevent false alarms and actively do so. Your efforts are certainly appreciated by us at NOAA and especially by those in distress!