Misuse of emergency beacons can prove costly

Coast Guard officials are urging Alaska boaters to learn correct use of emergency position indicating radio beacons, and to understand the consequences of failing to do so, in terms of liability, cost of false alerts and potential fines.

Owners of commercial fishing vessels, uninspected passenger vessels that carry six or more people, and uninspected commercial vessels are legally required to carry an EPIRB, a device that transmits a distress signal that reaches the Coast Guard and other emergency responders.  EPIRBs are also recommended for mariners who transit offshore or on long voyages.

The Coast Guard is encouraging anyone who has an EPIRB to properly register their device, and to ensure that the device is deactivated with batteries removed when thrown out.

This is because when the Coast Guard receives an EPIRB alert and cannot trace it to the owner due to missing or outdated registration information, they launch aircraft and boat crews to search the area or signs of distress.

Boaters should follow the instructions on the testing process and not turn the beacon on. When storing an EPIRB or other emergency signaling device or when disposing of such a device, boaters should remove the battery.  When the beacon is decommissioned, be sure that NOAA has the information updated in its registry database.

It costs approximately $15,000 an hour to fly a C-130 Hercules aircraft, $10,000 an hour to fly an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, and $5,000 an hour to operate a Coast Guard small boat.

Since Oct. 1, 2018, there have been 16 confirmed false alerts for distress beacons in Alaska that cost taxpayers some $353,108. Of those 16 events, three of the EPIRBs were located in garbage dumps, at a cost of approximately $35,000. Other reasons for false distress alerts included improper testing of beacons by turning them on, equipment failure such as mounting rackets, and dying batteries while the beacon was put in storage.

Keep in mind that if an unregistered beacon activates, the Federal Communications Commission can prosecute the owner based on evidence provided by the Coast Guard and will issue warning letters or notices of apparent liability for fines up to $10,000.