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What Is an EPIRB and how are the devices used? - VB Attorneys

Vuk Vujasinovic

Vuk Vujasinovic


EPIRB devices are an important part of ship safety, and they can make the difference between life and death for crewmembers in the event of a shipwreck or serious problem on a vessel. However, it is possible for these devices to malfunction or not be used appropriately in emergencies. If you or a loved one works on the water, here’s what you should know about these crucial safety devices.

What Is an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB)?

An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, EPIRB, is a type of radio distress beacon. These devices help alert rescue services of an emergency by transmitting a distress signal via satellite. They can be operated manually or set to operate automatically in an emergency. These devices often also include GPS systems that help search-and-rescue responders locate the vessel or the area of the wreck. The signal from these distress devices can be detected anywhere in the world, and they can be a key factor in saving lives when a ship goes down.

How Are These Devices Used on Ships?

In the event of a shipwreck or other emergency at sea, the signal from the EPIRB is used to locate the missing or unresponsive vessel. In large vessels, this beacon may be triggered automatically when it recognizes it is underwater. The buoyant device is released from its mounting on the ship and floats to the water’s surface to transmit its signal. On the other hand, many yachts and smaller personal boats may be equipped with EPIRB devices that can only be used manually and do not include an automatic release.

In most countries around the world, it is mandatory for commercial shipping vessels to be equipped with an EPIRB device. The main vessel may be equipped with a large EPIRB, while lifeboats may also contain smaller devices that can be activated manually by surviving crewmembers. It is often the specific duty of the Mate or another crewmember to activate the device in an emergency situation.

What Are the Issues With EPIRB Devices? What Can Go Wrong?

Although EPIRB devices are designed to save lives and emergency resources by reducing the time spent on the “search” part of search and rescue, there are times when these devices malfunction or don’t work as intended. Problems with a device might include:

  • Manufacturing defects
  • Lack of regular inspection, testing, and maintenance
  • Improper mounting of a device
  • Improper location of a mounted device that prevents it from floating to the surface
  • Inadequate crew training for use of EPIRB devices
  • Company limitations on when an EPIRB should be activated
  • Confusion about duties and panic in an emergency situation at sea

Examples of Real-Life Cases of Death or Injury Involving EPIRB Issues

There are several examples of issues with these devices in ship emergencies. Most recently, there have been questions about a potential EPIRB malfunction in the sinking of the El Faro. The El Faro, a 700-foot cargo ship, went missing in the Bahamas in Hurricane Joaquin. The Coast Guard reports that it received one transmission from the El Faro’s EPIRB, but that there were no transmissions or contact with the crew after that. This is unusual because EPIRBs generally continue to transmit for 24 to 48 hours after an incident and are designed to hold up in deep waters and to extreme wear and tear.

In another case of an emergency at sea, employees on a Trinity liftboat were seriously injured or ultimately lost their lives when they capsized during Tropical Storm Nate. Although there were many complicated issues involved in the case, uncovering problems with the beacon figured prominently in our successful representation of the victims. You can read the NTSB report on the Trinity II accident, which describes how problems with the beacon turned a dangerous situation into a deadly tragedy.

Unfortunately, when an EPIRB does not do its job, rescue can be delayed or become much more difficult. The extra time and resources used in locating a missing vessel and its crewmembers without an EPIRB signal can mean that responses from emergency teams take longer and more lives are lost unnecessarily.