The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintains a network of satellites called SARSAT, that helps forecasters track weather systems and wildfires. Those same satellites were critical in helping to save 421 lives in the U.S. and surrounding waters according to a recent press release.
Emergency radio beacons, like EPIRBs, PLBs, and ELTs transmit a distress signal to SARSAT satellites. The satellites pass that information and the approximate position of the beacon to ground stations that in turn, inform the Coast Guard and other search and rescue agencies. These devices have been a game changer when it comes to search and rescue operations. A traditional mayday call transmitted on VHF or shortwave radio may involve a search encompassing hundreds of square miles, if the person making the call cannot give responders a precise location. Modern GPS equipped beacons can narrow down the location of a beacon to within 100 yards, in the 70% of the world closest to the equator.
Saving 421 lives in 2019 is no small thing. Since 1982, the SARSAT system has supported 48,000 rescues worldwide, including 9,000 in the United States and its surrounding waters. In fact, SARSAT has been so successful, that contemporary accounts of mariners adrift at sea for long periods are becoming increasingly difficult to find. The accounts that do exist come from boaters not required to carry EPIRBS, mostly skiff fishermen in the developing world and the occasional recreational boater. Thank you NOAA for helping to making search and rescue operations much more effective! Do you want to get rescued more quickly in an emergency? Get an EPIRB or a PLB and register it as required. The information provided in your registration will help search and rescue agencies to respond more quickly and to know more about for whom they are searching.
Update: After a brief Facebook conversation with marine safety instructor, Kelli Toth, we thought it worth emphasizing that it's still vitally important to transmit a mayday call on your VHF or SSB radio if at all possible. A proper mayday call will alert nearby vessels, which may be your best opportunity for a quick rescue. For a good example of how to make an effective mayday call, check out the audio file in this blogpost from February, 2017, That's How You Make a MAYDAY Call.