In a move aimed at making it much easier for 406 MHz distress beacon owners to register and update the registration of their beacons, NOAA's Search And Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) Program's online 406 MHz Beacon Registration Database became operational on August 22, 2003. This will be a boon to owners of 406 MHz PLBs, ELTs, and EPIRBs and, hopefully, increase registration rates and the accuracy of the database for these emergency beacons, to the benefit of the entire SAR (Search and Rescue) community. This Web based registration system offers many advantages.
The registration information in this database provides one of the major advantages that 406 MHz technology offers over outdated and often ineffective 121.5 MHz beacons. Using this information, SAR can eliminate many false alerts along with the wated resource involved in responding to them and can also respond quicker to many real distress alerts from beacons that do not immediately deliver a GPS derived location.
For a comparison between the older 121.5 MHz distress beacons (ELT and EPIRB) and the better 406 MHz distress beacons (ELT, EPIRB and PLB), check out this comparison chart.
The new 406 MHz Beacon Registration Database features numerous upgrades that will dramatically streamline the 406 MHz beacon registration process and improve how rescue coordination centers receive and access distress alert data. Chief among these is the online registration capability which now enables beacon owners the convenience to register their 406 MHz emergency beacons directly, and immediately, without having to mail or fax a registration form to NOAA.
The online capability also enables beacon owners to update and manage their
registration information as these change over time, thereby increasing
the currency of the database and the information sent by the U.S.
Mission Control Center to SAR agencies here in the U.S. and around the
world. These SAR agencies also benefit from the online database, enabling
them to have secured direct access and querying capabilities,
increasing the efficiency with which beacon alerts are responded to.
A significant advantage offered by online registration is the ability to use the Additional Data field as a sort of flight plan / float plan / trip plan that will deliver this critically useful information directly and immediately to the SAR agency prosecuting the search and rescue. Actually, it's mostly rescue since 406 MHz technology takes most of the search out of search and rescue. If using this capability, please don't forget to either date the information or remove/change it after you complete the flight, voyage or trip. NOAA could have helped themselves we think by providing a place to date any such information provided in this field.
A very important point is that for security reasons the transfer of data is not automatic and currently up to 24 hours can lapse between the time you enter your information online and its acceptance into the system. So, you should plan accordingly when entering trip information and know that last minute changes may take hours to be updated. That does limit its maximum utility somewhat, but it is still far better overall and in most respects than traditional means.
On the down side, NOAA has limited this data field to only 255 characters total. When queried, their explanation was that, "SAR forces said that 255 characters were ample for any additional information, which could assist the SAR forces." We respectfully disagree, we think that's a bit tight for many circumstances. So, if you have a significant amount of information you'd like SAR to know about, type terse prose, use abbreviations when you can, making sure their meaning is still clear, and don't worry about punctuation or complete sentences.
Pilots and boaters carrying PLBs should use this field also to provide the same data that is normally called for in an ELT or EPIRB registration, respectively. It would be very useful if the PLB form had dedicated fields for such information, but we were told by NOAA that, "during the design phase of the Web Based Registration Database, we had interaction with the Search and Rescue forces. For each type of registration (EPIRB, ELT, PLB), the SAR forces identified fields, which were useful for them for Search and Rescue operations. They wanted to designate the Additional Data Section for supplemental information, for which a field was not already provided." We are not sure many of those registering will be able to read the developers' minds. It would have also made the 255 character limitation less of a problem. We have suggested to NOAA that they should at least add a suggestion for pilots and boaters to use the Additional Data field for this purpose.
The National 406 MHz Beacon Registration can be found at: www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov
When we asked about security, always a concern for any online system and especially so when contact information such as this is provided, we were told that this was a major priority. Ajay Meta, NOAA-SARSAT Program Manager, had to be circumspect with regards to the specific measures used, but did say, "security measures include firewalls on both sides of the web server, intrusion detection systems, SSL (Secure Socket Layer), and passwords. In addition, the SQL database we use has additional security measures that we activated."
For those who are Web adverse, beacon owners can still mail or fax their registration information as before. NOAA has redesigned the paper forms to match the new data fields used in the online registration process. This also addresses some of the shortcomings of the old paper forms, which, for example, only provided for two contact phone numbers per Emergency Contact, too few for many in today's multifaceted telecommunications environment. NOAA will continue to accept the older forms "for the immediate future." The latest printable forms can be obtained via a selection from the online registration page.
We used the online registration to register an EPIRB we had on hand, finding it relatively straightforward, if not exactly 100% trouble free. Unfortunately, it seems that in some cases the designers didn't take into consideration human factors, how a user in the real world might use or fill out the form. We experienced a number of minor annoyances and what might be considered bugs, but nothing that prevented us from completing the registration. No doubt NOAA will address some of these issues as the system matures.
Answers to questions relating to registering your emergency beacon can be found in the Registering Your PLB section of the Ultimate Personal Locator Beacon FAQ on Equipped To Survive. While oriented to 406 MHz PLBs, most of the information applies to all 406 MHz beacons.
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Publisher and Editor: Doug Ritter
Email: Doug Ritter
First Published: August 23, 2003
Revision: 02 August 26, 2003
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