Should You Purchase an EPIRB or a PLB?

The Difference Between EPIRBs and Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)

Photo courtesy NOAA

Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons, or EPIRBs for short, are similar to Personal Locator Beacons, or PLBs, in that they are both devices used to alert distress. Both emit a signal (either manually or automatically generated, depending upon the model) on 406 MHz frequency that is picked up by both polar orbiting satellites and geostationary satellites. Its signal allows rescue agencies like the Coast Guard to accurately locate the radio beacon and identify the owner or vessel anywhere in the world.

Both also can have integrated GPS units to dramatically improve the location accuracy. EPIRBs and PLBs are credited with saving many lives since they have been implemented.

The main difference between an EPIRB and a PLB is that EPIRBs are designed to signal maritime distress, while PLBs were originally designed for land-based applications. A traditional EPIRB is mounted to your vessel, and will generate a distress signal automatically if immersed in water, if it is a Category I EPIRB, or when you manually flip the switch, if it is a Category II EPIRB. They are mandatory on commercial vessels, and are becoming increasingly popular as personal EPIRBs become available and more affordable. Historically, PLBs are portable units that operate much the same as EPIRBs, but they are designed to be carried by an individual person instead of on a boat. Many boaters are using this type of emergency locator beacon rather than an EPIRB.

PLBs can only be activated manually, which is a significant factor to consider when deciding to buy an EPIRB or a PLB.

When determining which emergency beacon to purchase, keep in mind that some type of beacon is better than nothing. It's not a "should I buy" scenario, but a "which one should I buy?" because every boater should have either an EPIRB or a PLB.

In some cases, it's not a bad idea to have both. Boats sink or capsize and people fall overboard even with the best planning, boating skill and experience in the world.

Further reading about EPIRBS and Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs):


What Exactly is an EPIRB?


How to Register an EPIRB or PLB

The Best EPIRBs or PLBs to Buy

Should You Purchase an EPIRB or a PLB?

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