NOAA 03-066
Contact: John Leslie

NOAA News Releases 2003
NOAA Home Page
NOAA Public Affairs


Keeping America’s outdoor enthusiasts safe and within close reach of rescue personnel during emergencies is the goal behind a national awareness campaign unveiled today in Washington, D.C. With the White House and a crowd of Boy Scouts from Vermont as a backdrop, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Air Force announced the authorization of a new, digitally encoded distress device called, the Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), which will become available for nationwide use beginning July 1, 2003.

“These new personal beacons have advanced features and use the global positioning system [GPS] technology, which makes it easier, and quicker for NOAA satellites to pick up their distress signals and relay an accurate location to the rescuers,” said James R. Mahoney, assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and deputy NOAA administrator.

All owners of PLBs and other types of 406-megahertz beacons are required by law to register them with NOAA. The registration includes critical information such as the owner’s name, address, telephone number and the PLB’s unique identification number. The distress signal is checked against a registration database, which contains information to locate the missing person.

“A PLB is an effective tool only if people take the time to register it,” said Lt. Col. Scott Morgan, the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center commanding officer. “With this information, the AFRCC can validate an alert with one phone call to the designated emergency contact, who can vouch for the whereabouts of the beacon’s owner.”

The PLBs send out digital distress signals on the 406-megahertz frequency, which are detected by NOAA Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) and Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites (POES). GOES, the first to detect a beacon’s distress signal, hover in a fixed orbit above Earth and receive the signals, which contain registration information about the beacon and its owner. The POES constantly circle the globe, enabling them to capture and accurately locate the alerts.

The satellites are part of the worldwide satellite search and rescue system called, COSPAS-SARSAT. The COSPAS-SARSAT system is a cluster of NOAA and Russian satellites that work together to detect distress signals anywhere in the world from PLBs and beacons aboard ships and airplanes.

The signals are relayed to the U.S. Mission Control Center, based at the NOAA Satellite and Information Center in Suitland, Md., for processing. From there, they are sent to rescue agencies around the world.

In the United States, the PLB alerts will be routed to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, which acts as the single federal agency for search and rescue in the 48 contiguous states. The AFRCC notifies the state rescue agency, or state police in the area where the PLB was activated.

“The AFRCC has many resources available to dispatch on a moment’s notice to aid in search and rescue efforts,” Lt. Col. Morgan added. “However, the desire is to conserve resources where possible and we expect the beacons to do that by pinpointing the location of the person in distress. The bottom line is we’ll be able to do a better job and save lives as well.”

Mahoney commented, “This awareness campaign is about safety. We want recreationists who venture into America’s remote wilderness to be safe and prepared if an emergency arises. The best way to do that is to carry a 406 personal locator beacon.”

NOAA Satellites and Information is the nation’s primary source of space-based meteorological and climate data. It operates the nation’s environmental satellites, which are used for weather and ocean observation and forecasting, climate monitoring and other environmental applications, including sea-surface temperature, fire detection and ozone monitoring.

NOAA Satellites and Information also operates three data centers, which house global databases in climatology, oceanography, solid Earth geophysics, marine geology and geophysics, solar-terrestrial physics and paleoclimatology.

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 America’s coastal and marine resources.

On The Web:


COSPAS-SARSAT and emergency locator beacons: