NOAA 2002-R317
Contact: Jordan St. John
NOAA News Releases 2002
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At a news conference yesterday at the Coast Guard Air Station at Ellington Field in Houston, NOAA and Coast Guard officials announced the landmark decision by the Federal Communications Commission to allow access for land-based, satellite-tracked personal locator beacons to be used in the Continental United States. This decision comes on the 20th anniversary of the global life-saving satellite program Cospas-Sarsat which has led to the rescue of more than 14,000 people worldwide since its inception in 1982. Houston is home to one of the ground stations for this vital system.

Outdoor adventurers will soon have the same distress alert protection as aviators and mariners. An experimental program permitted the use of 406 MHz Personal Locator Beacons to be carried by individuals in Alaska. A decision has been made to authorize Personal Locator Beacons nationawide beginning July 1, 2003. This will have a profound 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.

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

“Many lives in the Houston area alone were saved because of Sarsat notification and Coast Guard search-and-rescue intervention,” retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Ph.D., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator, said at the ceremony in Houston. “The teaming of assets in this program is a model for cooperation between agencies as well as efficiency and innovation. The Coast Guard and NOAA’s vigilance will hopefully some day result in taking the ‘search’ out of search and rescue.”

NOAA operates a series of environmental satellites that detect and locate users in distress. The U.S. Mission Control Center at the NOAA facility in Suitland, Md., relays distress signals to the appropriate team in the international SAR community.

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 receiving satellites. The signal is then forwarded to a Mission Control Center where it is combined with position and registration information and passed to SAR authorities at a Rescue Coordination Center. In the United States, 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. If the location of the beacon is in another country's service area, the alert is transmitted to that country's MCC.

In the United States, NOAA operates 14 Local User Terminals in seven locations: Suitland; Houston; 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.

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. There are approximately 590,000 121.5 MHz beacons in use worldwide. Of those, 260,000 are in use in the U.S., primarily on small aircraft.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of our nation’s coastal and marine resources.

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