NOAA 2002-137
Contact: Patricia Viets
NOAA News Releases 2002
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Hikers and outdoor adventurers will soon have access to the technology used in the lifesaving satellite-tracked distress alerts carried by aviators and mariners. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved a request by the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for frequency access by personal emergency beacons to be used in the continental United States. This decision comes on the 20th anniversary of the global lifesaving satellite program Cospas-Sarsat which has led to the rescue of more than 14,000 people worldwide since its inception in 1982.

The decision authorizes the use of personal locator beacons beginning July 1, 2003. The action follows a highly successful experimental program that permitted the use of the 406 MHz Personal Locator Beacons carried by hikers in Alaska. This decision gives a green light to a significant public safety benefit for the millions of people in the United States who explore the nation’s wilderness every year, and opens the potential for saving many more lives.

“The goals and rewards of Cospas-Sarsat are the same -- saving lives,” said retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Ph.D., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “The system is exceptional in that it piggy-backs the search and rescue instrumentation provided by Canada and France on NOAA’s environmental satellites, and pulls together the search and rescue resources of the U.S. Coast Guard, Air Force, Navy and state and local units to save lives. People from countries around the world can reap the benefits this technology provides. The ultimate objective is to eliminate search from the search and rescue operation.”

Cospas-Sarsat is a search and rescue (SAR) system that uses United States and Russian satellites to detect and locate emergency beacons indicating distress. The beacon transmitters are carried by individuals or aboard aircraft and ships. In the United States, the program is operated and funded by Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Air Force, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

NOAA operates a series of polar-orbiting and geostationary environmental satellites that detect and locate aviators, mariners and land-based users in distress. These satellites, along with a network of ground stations and the U.S. Mission Control Center in Suitland, Md., are part of the Cospas-Sarsat program, whose mission is to relay distress signals to the international SAR community.

Originally sponsored by Canada, France, Russia, and the United States, and started during the Cold War, the system now includes 36 nations around the world. It operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and aims to reduce the time required to alert rescue authorities whenever a distress situation occurs.

“The system truly shows how U.S. government agencies and foreign countries can all work together for the good of humankind,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Scott Morgan, Air Force Rescue Coordination Center commanding officer at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia.

In addition to the satellites, the Cospas-Sarsat system consists of emergency distress-alerting beacons carried on aircraft, ships and persons, ground receiving stations (also called Local User Terminals or LUTs), Mission Control Centers, and Rescue Coordination Centers. When an aircraft, ship, or person is in distress, an emergency beacon is activated either automatically or manually. The beacon transmits a distress signal to the satellites. The signal is then forwarded to a Mission Control Center where it is combined with position and registration information and passed to search and rescue authorities at a Rescue Coordination Center.

In the United States, NOAA operates 14 Local User Terminals in seven locations. There are two LUTs in each of the following locations: Suitland, Maryland; Houston, Texas; Vandenberg AFB, Calif., Fairbanks, Alaska; Wahiawa, Hawaii; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Andersen AFB, Guam. There are currently 39 LUTs in operation worldwide with several more being built each year. This year and next, NOAA will upgrade its LUTs throughout the country.

The U.S. Mission Control Center (USMCC) in Suitland, Md., obtains the location information from the ground receiving stations. The USMCC combines this information with other satellite receptions (from other ground stations and MCCs), further refines the location and generates an alert message. This alert is then transmitted to the appropriate Rescue Coordination Center based on the beacon's geographic location and/or identification.

If the location of the beacon is in another country's service area, the alert is transmitted to that country's MCC. This is possible because all Cospas-Sarsat MCCs are interconnected through nodal MCCs that handle data distribution in a particular region of the world. Currently, there are 24 MCCs worldwide (five of which are nodal MCCs operated by the United States, France, Russia, Japan and Australia). Although the operation is always manned, the vast majority of alert data distribution is handled automatically.

Once the Rescue Coordination Center is alerted, it begins the actual search and rescue operation. In the United States, these rescue centers are operated by the U.S. Coast Guard for incidents at sea, and by the U.S. Air Force for incidents on land. In the case of NOAA-registered 406 MHz beacons, the RCC telephones the beacon's owner and/or emergency contact, and if it cannot determine that the signal is a false alert, it dispatches SAR teams to locate the aircraft or vessel in distress. These SAR forces use planes, helicopters, ships, boats, search parties and sometimes commercial ships to find the persons in distress and bring them to safety.

There are approximately 285,000 406 MHz beacons currently in use worldwide Of those, more than 87,000 have been registered in NOAA's beacon database, primarily on small aircraft.

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