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EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons)

All ships operating beyond smooth and partially smooth waters must carry a 406 MHz digital EPIRB if more than two nautical miles from land.

What is a distress beacon?

Image of an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons)

A distress beacon is a small electronic device that, when activated in a life-threatening situation, assists rescue authorities in their search to locate those in distress.

Types of distress beacons

  • EPIRBs used in ships and boats are designed to float in the water to optimise the signal to the satellite. An EPIRB is required to operate for a minimum of 48 hours continuously once activated. It has a lanyard used to secure it to something that is not going to sink so that it can float free.
  • Personal locator beacons are designed for personal use in both the land and marine environment. Personal locator beacons are required to operate for a minimum of 24 hours once activated.

Personal locator beacons are not a substitute for EPIRBs if you are required to carry an EPIRB as part of your safety equipment.

Some 406 MHz beacons have an encoded (GPS) location. Locating a distress site is usually much faster if the beacon signal provides a GPS location.

Register your EPIRB

Link to Australian Maritime Safety Authority website

You must register your 406 MHz beacon with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority must also be advised of any change to ownership and boat details. Registration is free and can result in a more efficient search and rescue effort.

A registered 406 MHz EPIRB will allow the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s Rescue Coordination Centre to access the registration database and find contact details, details of registered boats and details of up to three nominated emergency contacts. These emergency contacts may be able to provide valuable information to the Rescue Coordination Centre that can assist with a faster rescue if a beacon is activated and contact cannot be made with the boat. Beacon owners registering online will have protected access to their accounts and can update details including changes to:

  • ownership and emergency contact details
  • boat details
  • registered address details
  • indicate the disposal of a beacon.
There is also a facility for owners to note trip itineraries so when a beacon is activated the Rescue Coordination Centre will have access to current movements and be better placed to organise a suitable response. This does not replace advising a responsible person such as a volunteer marine rescue organisation of your trip details. In addition to online access, registration forms and changes to details can also be provided to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority by fax, email or post.

Registration stickers for EPIRBs

Image of where a HexID/UIN can be found on an EPIRB

Registration stickers are issued by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and provide EPIRB owners and marine inspectors with proof of current registration. The sticker will note the HexID/UIN of the beacon, its registration expiry date (two years from date of issue) and boat name or owner’s name depending on type of beacon and use. This registration sticker must be affixed to the beacon. A fine may result if a current sticker is not affixed to a beacon during a safety equipment inspection.

Frequently asked questions

  • What is the HexID or UIN?
    The HexID or Unique Identity Number (UIN) is the unique code programmed into each 406 MHz EPIRB and transmitted when the beacon is activated. When registering an EPIRB, this code must be included on the registration form as it is the only code that links the individual EPIRB to the registration database. Without the HexID the beacon cannot be registered. The HexID is 15 characters long and is made up of hexadecimal numbers (0–9) and letters (A–F). The code can be found on the label of all 406 MHz EPIRBs.
  • When should an EPIRB be used?
    EPIRBs should only be used when there is a threat of grave and imminent danger. In the event of an emergency, communication should first be attempted with others close by using radios, phones and other signalling devices. Mobile phones can be used but should not be relied upon as they can be out of range, have low batteries or become water-damaged.
  • Where should EPIRBs be stowed?
    In a boat, an EPIRB should be stowed in its mounting bracket where it is visible and easy to access in an emergency or in a grab bag along with flares, a torch or strobe and other safety equipment. If possible keep it out of the weather and locked away when the boat is not in use. If an EPIRB is to be stowed in a grab bag or out of its bracket you should use a manually operated EPIRB. Water activated EPIRBs should always be stowed in their brackets correctly when not in use.
  • What should be done if an EPIRB is sold, lost, stolen or destroyed?
    Owners are asked to notify the Australian Maritime Safety Authority if they sell their distress beacon or it is lost, stolen or destroyed. If the Australian Maritime Safety Authority is not notified and the new owner activates the beacon any rescue will be delayed as the last known registered owner will be contacted. Notification of sold, lost, stolen or destroyed distress beacons can be made online at beacons.amsa.gov.au or by fax, phone, post or email.
  • What if an EPIRB is accidentally activated?
    The most important thing to do is to switch off the beacon and notify the Rescue Coordination Centre Australia as soon as possible by calling 1800 641 792 to ensure a search and rescue operation is not commenced. There is no penalty for accidental activations.
  • When should EPIRB batteries be replaced?
    EPIRB batteries need to be replaced before the expiry date noted on the label of the beacon. This will ensure that the beacon will transmit for the minimum time required once activated. Battery life varies from model to model. Batteries should be replaced by the manufacturer or their Australian agent.
  • How should unwanted EPIRBs be disposed of?
    EPIRBs need to be disposed of responsibly in case they accidentally activate and trigger a false alarm. Unwanted EPIRBs can be disposed of in the collection bins at any of the Battery World stores around Australia. Do not dispose of your beacon in general waste as it will end up in landfill and could be activated accidentally.

Further information about EPIRBs and distress beacons can be found on the Australian Maritime Safety Authority website. 

Last updated
14 February 2013