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Personal Locator Beacons Added to FMA Safety Program in 2007

Personal Locator Beacon
Figure 1.  Brian Mason, FMA staff, dons an immersion suit to demonstrate the use of a Personal Locator Beacon for water rescue.

As part of the Fisheries Monitoring and Analysis (FMA) Divisionís North Pacific Observer Program (NPGOP), approximately 400 fishery observers spend up to 90 consecutive days each year at sea or at processing plants collecting data used for management of the Alaskan groundfish fisheries. The majority of this work is performed in one of the most dangerous working environments in the United States. Working conditions can be cold, wet, dark, and hectic. The weather conditions can be treacherous. In every case, all observers at sea face the possibility of a major at-sea emergency.

At-sea emergencies occur each year, but in the history of the NPGOP there has been only one observer fatality with the sinking of the Aleutian Enterprise in 1990. However, in several cases observers and crewmembers have found it necessary to abandon ship. In the cold waters of the North Pacific, abandoning a vessel is an extreme measure, and rapid rescue is paramount to survival. Commercial fishing vessels carrying observers have a variety of required safety equipment on board, such as the vessel radio and Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). However, in an emergency requiring abandoning ship, that equipment may be inaccessible or otherwise left behind.

In 2002, the 180-foot vessel Galaxy suffered an extensive fire at sea. The captain fought through smoke and flames to enter the wheelhouse to send a Mayday call. However, the fire spread rapidly, and the captain was able to send only a short Mayday call. Soon after the call was sent, all of the vesselís electronic systems were destroyed in the fire. All personnel onboard, 26 people including the observer, eventually had to abandon ship. Several crewmembers made it into the vesselís life rafts, but others did not. The observer was among several who could not make it to a life raft and she, along with a crewman, drifted in the sea away from the vessel. Fortunately, three nearby vessels came to aid and rescued many of the crew and the observer from the sea. Four people perished in the accident.

Given the high potential of danger at sea, safety is a key focus of FMA operations and training (see Quarterly Report, April-May-June 2006). In keeping with its emphasis on safety, the FMA Division recently added the Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) to observerís safety gear effective January 2007 (Fig. 1 above). A PLB is a small, portable device, which when activated emits a signal giving the units location and indicating the person possessing the device is in imminent danger and needs rescue. Each observer will be equipped with a PLB, with funding for the initial purchase made available through the National Observer Program.

When activated, the signal from the PLB is transmitted by satellite to the NOAA Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) Mission Control Center. Signals transmitted from sea are relayed to the U.S. Coast Guard for response action. A feature of the FMAís PLBs is that they transmit the Global Positioning System coordinates of the unitís position, accurate to within 100 m. Each PLB has a unique identification number to allow tracking of the PLB and thus the location of the individual in possession of the PLB.

PLBs are registered individually in the NOAA SARSAT database. Emergency contact information for individuals carrying PLBs is recorded in the database and provides search and rescue teams with necessary contact information regarding the PLBís possessor, vessel description, and the number of persons onboard. The contact information also helps in identifying any false alarms that may be activated avoiding unnecessary deployment of rescue personnel.

Providing PLBs to observers in the North Pacific presents some logistical challenges because of the large number of observers deployed (up to 230 at one time) and the need to have precise information regarding the possessor of each PLB. This challenge is addressed by utilizing database technology to track all FMA PLBs and to provide automatic daily reports to each observerís employer.

PLBs transmit a 406 MHz signal that can be detected by satellites usually within 5 minutes of the first transmission. They are powered by a lithium battery capable of 24 hours of transmission at -20įC. The FMAís PLB model weighs 12 ounces and is small enough to be worn on a belt clip or attached to an immersion suit.

PLBs were approved by the Federal Communications Commission for use by the general public beginning in July 2003. Prior to this authorization, PLBs could be used only by residents of Alaska in a program designed to assess the functionality of PLBs and their effects on search and rescue operations. The program was highly successful with nearly 400 lives saved and very few false alerts generated. PLBs are now used by hikers, climbers, boaters, and many others active in remote settings nationwide.

FMA staff train observers to use PLBs and emphasize that activating one is comparable to sending a Mayday signal. Thus, each observer understands their responsibility to use these tools judiciously. They are also trained to keep the PLB with them in an emergency. Then, if they become separated from the vicinity of the vessel and the vesselís EPIRB, as typically occurs when personnel must abandon ship, their chances for rescue will be greatly improved.

The PLB is an important new safety tool, but it is only one component of the FMAís safety program. The program provides other required safety gear such as hard hats, personal flotation devices, immersion suits, as well as extensive safety training. The training curriculum covers handling at-sea emergencies such as man overboard, near-drowning, fire, flooding, and abandoning ship. In training, observers practice donning immersion suits, entering the water, and boarding a life raft from the water. The addition of the PLBs adds a new dimension to our comprehensive observer safety program. We expect our safety efforts to continue to evolve as safety tools, technologies, and education continue to improve. In the dangerous at-sea environment in which observers work, we cannot stress this aspect of their work enough.

By Allison Barns

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