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Distress Beacons, PLB & EPIRBS



These devices do not actually allow you to have a conversation as such but signals from distress beacons can be picked up by satellites and passing aircraft.  They are to be used only in an emergency situation.  They should be correctly stowed so they do not go off accidentally and waste valuable search and rescue resources.  Penalties do apply for misuse.

There are three types:-

EPIRB’s – Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons usually used by marine craft.

PLB – pocket size Personal Locator Beacon

ELT – crash activated electronic locator transmitters, mainly for aircraft.


The definition of ‘distress situation’ varies from country to country but it relates to the safety of human life.

A fact sheet No. 22 is available from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).  The ACMA indicate that if vehicles and bushwalkers in remote parts of Australia carry a distress beacon it should be the 406 MHz PLB type.

The 406MHz distress beacons are more accurate, are detected more quickly and identify their owner.  Also the 406MHz operating beacons are compatible with Cospas-Sarsat Satellite System that receives distress signals as it orbits the earth.

The beacon should only be activated in a distress situation.  The fact sheet defines a ‘distress situation’ as:-

A distress situation is generally defined as one in which a person or persons face grave and imminent danger and require immediate assistance. On land such situations might include:

  • the need for urgent medical evacuation;
  • mechanical breakdown where food and water supplies can not be replenished;
  • being lost with little hope of reaching outside assistance before food and water supplies are finished; and
  • similar life-threatening situations.

Each situation is unique and common sense and good judgment need to be exercised.



For caravan and 4WD use, on land, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA - responsible for search and rescue) recommend the use of a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). They also recommend a PLB with the inbuilt GPS feature as, once activated, the time to provide a location and the accuracy of precision of the location is much better.

These lightweight personal PLB devices are ideal for camping, bushwalking or 4WD in the outback.  Once activated the PLB will emit a homing signal for emergency services to locate you.

The GME's MT410GAUS personal locator beacon (PLB) with GPS capability and a 7 year warranty is designed and manufactured in Australia. They claim it is small enough to go in your top pocket or be able to be hung around your neck on a lanyard. 

Some other brands/models are GME, ACR Electronics TerraFix, Orvis AeroFix and L.L. Bean ACR TerraFix.

Personal PLB's can be hired in Australia from National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS) during office hours at places like Jindabyne, Perisher Valley, Khancoban and Tumut.  EPIRBS can also be obtained from the Blue Mountains Centre or Katoomba & Springwood police stations as part of the Think Before You Trek bush safety initiatives.


As an EPIRB can only be used in a ‘distress situation’ defined above you may want this personal location tracker.  Whereas the personal locator beacon (PLB) can be used on a public-access satellite network there is now a product Spot GPS Personal Location Tracker which uses the commercially owned Globalstar satellite network. 

You can hire the personal location tracker or purchase one outright.  Costs include the unit itself, the GPS subscription cost and a fee for the tracking functionality.  Search and rescue insurance can also be purchased at the initial activation of the personal location tracker which is cheaper than if you purchase it later.   

 Spot GPS Personal Location Tracker


The Spot GPS Personal Location Tracker or Spot Locator ( is a rugged plastic waterproof device which uses 4 x AA lithium batteries only.  One of the features of the PLT is a recessed emergency ‘911’ button and once pressed there is despatch of a message to the GEOS International Emergency Response Centre and a local emergency services are sent to your location.  The other feature is a personal tracking feature (subscription required) where you press and hold an ‘OK’ button and your designated contacts will receive an SMS or email letting them know your position and that you are fine.  This ‘OK’ function must be re-activated every 24 hours and your position will be registered and logged every 10 minutes. The standard cost for this feature includes up to 200 annual check in or help text messages and an upgrade option is available for send and save your location and allow contacts to track your progress.  The Custom Message button lets you send a pre-programmed message to nominated personal contacts for say when a destination is reached and all well.  Your location map using Google Maps is viewable via a website which you can provide to your family and contacts before you leave on a trip so they can view your trip progress. 

Another feature of the PLT is you can also set up a designated contact and when you press the ‘Help’ button it will inform your designated contact that you are not okay.

Another similar devices are the Delorme inReach SE Communicator and the RescueME PLB1 (works with Compas Sarsat satellite network).

Other Options:
Thuraya SatSleeve
If you have a Samsung Galaxy smartphone there is a satellite adaptor for smartphones that provides an easy and affordable access to mobile communication over the Thuraya satellite network.  Just inset your smartphone into the SatSleeve for Android and stay connected through phone calls, SMS and date via satellite mode. The SatSleeve sells for around $800 and monthly service plans start from about $15.




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