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Emergency Locator Beacons Q & A
1 March 2016


A locator beacon is a small electronic device that, on activation, broadcasts a
distress signal to a satellite. This signal alerts the New Zealand Rescue Co-
Ordination Centre
that you are in distress.

Why are they going to stop monitoring 121.5MHz and 243MHz?

121.5MHz and 243MHz locator beacons are now obsolete, unreliable technology.
Rather than waste resources monitoring the old frequency, worldwide efforts are
being concentrated on the superior 406MHz system. COSPAS-SARSAT made the decision to cease satellite processing of 121.5MHz and 243MHz in response to guidance from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the
International Maritime Organization (IMO). 
These United Nations organizations mandate safety requirements for aircraft and
maritime vessels and have recognised the limitations of the 121.5MHz and 243MHz locator beacons and the superior capabilities of the 406MHz alerting system. It is faster, more reliable and more accurate, and is already assisting in the saving of lives. 
The decision was also made to reduce the chronically high false alarm rate from
analogue locator beacons. Currently 91% of locator beacon signals are false

Who is RCCNZ?

The Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand manages all category II search and rescue missions in the New Zealand Search and Rescue Region (NZSRR). When you activate your locator beacon a satellite will detect your signal and send information to RCCNZ, which will then begin a search and rescue mission for you. RCCNZ is based in Lower Hutt, Wellington. It is part of Maritime New Zealand, which is a Crown Agency. For further information, visit

What do I do with my old 121.5MHz locator beacon?

Dispose of it properly by contacting the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand on 0800 406 111 to find out your nearest locator beacon disposal centre or by sending it to the Rescue Coordination Centre by courier, handing it in to your nearest Police station or handing it to the retailer from whom you purchase your 406 MHz locator beacon. DO NOT THROW IT AWAY (that may lead to a helicopter search of your nearest landfill).

What is 406MHz?

Modern locator beacons transmit on 406 Megahertz (MHz). It is a digital system that is fast, reliable and accurate. As well as helping rescuers find your position,
406MHz beacons transmit an identification code. When the beacon is registered
with the RCCNZ, this reduces the number of false alarms and provides rescuers
additional information, so they can locate you faster and bring the right rescue

What is an OPERATIONAL test?

A test of a 406MHz locator beacon that requires confirmation of correct processing by the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system.

What is the Ground Segment?

The COSPAS-SARSAT ground segment consists of: Local User Terminals (LUT’s) which receive beacon signals relayed by the satellites and process them, to determine the beacon location; and Mission Control Centres (MCC’s) which accept the output from the LUT’s, convey alert and location data to appropriate search and rescue authorities and exchange system information messages with other MCC’s.

What is an Emergency Beacon HEX ID?

The unique identity of each and every 406MHz locator beacon, made up of 15
alpha-numeric hexadecimal characters.

What is a Local User Terminal (LUT)?

An earth receiving station that receives locator beacon signals relayed by COSPAS-SARSAT satellites, processes them to determine the location of beacons, and forwards the signals to a Mission Control Centre (MCC). The New Zealand MCC servicing New Zealand is the Australian Rescue Coordination Centre, located in Canberra.

Why should I not buy a locator beacon from overseas or over the Internet?

Each country has an individual 406MHz code. Unless specified, a beacon from
overseas will be coded for another country and have to be registered in that country. When it is activated, the satellite will notify the wrong Rescue Coordination Centre, which could mean a long, potentially life-threatening delay. Locator beacons bought overseas cannot be registered in New Zealand, unless the beacon coding is changed to the New Zealand Country code (512).

When should I use a locator beacon?

Locator beacons are only for use in life-threatening situations. In the event of an
emergency, you should first signal other people in your area using radios or other
methods of attracting attention. Mobile phones can be used too, but don't rely on
them. The phones may be out of range, have limited battery power, or become
water-damaged. The procedure to set off a distress beacon varies from device to
device. Make sure you read the instructions on how to operate your particular
beacon before you have to use it. The instructions are on the locator beacon label. EPIRBs work best when floating in the water but make sure the beacon is attached to something by the lanyard so that it does not float away. On land, ensure that the PLB is placed in the open away from overhangs so that it has the greatest view of the sky and therefore the best opportunity to be detected by orbiting satellites and over flying aircraft.

What are the different types of beacons?

EPIRB’s - Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons are locator beacons
designed for maritime environments. These devices are designed to float in water.

PLB’s - Personal Locator Beacons are designed for personal use, mainly by
bushwalkers, cross-country vehicle clubs, mountaineers and other adventurers on
land. They’re also used in gliders. They're small and lightweight, and designed to fit into pockets. They are manually operated.

ELT’s - Emergency Location Transmitters (ELT’s) are designed for aviation use.
They are hard-wired into the aircraft. They are fitted to activate on impact or can be activated manually.

All beacon types are available as standard models or with the addition of GPS.

What if I accidentally set my beacon off?

The most important thing is to turn it off and let RCCNZ know as soon as you can by phoning 0508 472 269. If you are flying, contact Air Traffic Control and ask that they notify RCCNZ of the inadvertent activation. Likewise, if you are on a boat, get a message to RCCNZ through the local Coastguard or Coast Radio Station. There is no penalty for accidentally setting off your locator beacon. If you use your beacon, or it is accidentally activated, have it serviced to ensure the battery still has enough life to power the beacon for the required 48 hours continuous operation.

I have heard that there may be other safety products that could be better than 406MHz locator beacons. Is this true and do SAR services endorse other products?

The primary aim of the New Zealand SAR services is to enable the successful
search and rescue of people in emergency situations. In principle, we support any system or product that assists in this goal but are largely reliant on other bodies (such as the CAA, Maritime New Zealand, and the international satellite monitoring service, COSPAS-SARSAT), to determine and advise the appropriate recommended safety devices. The 406MHz locator beacon is now the international standard for distress beacons. We also strongly recommend that no safety device is a substitute for exercising good judgment and following sensible safety procedures. Any alternative technology should be submitted to the relevant body for appraisal.

What are the problems caused by false alarms?

Every beacon alert in and around NZ is treated as a genuine emergency until
proven otherwise. This means that false alarms have tied up scarce search and
rescue time and assets, while genuine emergencies have received undersized
search and rescue responses. While this situation will not be totally eliminated with the use of 406MHz locator beacons, the ability to phone the registered owners will help reduce the risk and has led to the international decision to phase-out the analogue frequency.

How do the 406MHz locator beacons prevent false alarms?

The digital beacons transmit an identity code on the 406MHz frequency that can be cross-referenced with a database of registered 406MHz locator beacon owners at the RCCNZ. This confidential database includes phone numbers, next of kin contacts, vessel type, how many people usually carried and other vital information, to provide the right response to the emergency. On false alarms, it enables the RCCNZ to make a call to the registered locator beacon owner to see if he/she is in genuine distress or just has a beacon transmitting by accident. Many false alarms occur because the switch on the locator beacon has been bumped on.

How much better are the 406MHz locator beacons?

406MHz locator beacons are more accurate (to within approximately 5 km, compared to about 20 km for the analogue beacons). 406MHz beacons are also faster – depending on the location, they may be detected within minutes, compared to the average one hour and 30 minutes it takes to get confirmed satellite detection from a 121.5MHz or 243MHz analogue beacon. With the addition of GPS, your location can be determined to within 120 metres in a matter of minutes.

Do locator beacons always work?

No safety equipment can be 100% guaranteed, as they are dependent on variables such as correct usage and the circumstance of the emergency, but the new 406MHz-generation of locator beacons are superior to previous models and, when used correctly, will provide speedy notification of an emergency. Locator beacons are not the only safety equipment that should be used in outdoor recreation and are not intended to replace essential safety equipment such as VHF radios or lifejackets. The 406MHz-generation of locator beacons are the new international standard and will be the only frequency monitored by international satellites. As such they will remain a critical part of New Zealand’s search and rescue operations.

Will SAR respond to an activated 406MHz beacon?

Yes. When you activate your 406MHz locator beacon, a satellite will detect your
signal and send information to RCCNZ, which will then begin a search and rescue
mission for you. All beacon activations are investigated to the source. The RCCNZ is charged with identifying all locator beacon signals. There is no cost to the beacon owner/user for this service. Reducing the cost of false activations is one of the key benefits of 406MHz locator beacons. They do this by unique identification codes that are referenced against a registration database, so that owners can be contacted to determine if activation is real or false and appropriate action quickly and efficiently deployed.

Why are locator beacons with in-built GPS better?

With the addition of GPS, authorities will not only be advised that you are in
distress, but also your exact location. This removes any need to ‘search’ for you and enables them to launch immediately into your rescue operation, saving even more valuable time. Locator beacons with inbuilt GPS are strongly recommended.

How do I use a locator beacon?

The procedure to set off a locator beacon varies from device to device. Make sure
you read the instructions on how to operate your particular beacon before you have to use it. The instructions are on the beacon label. EPIRB’s work best when floating in the water but make sure the locator beacon is attached to something by the lanyard so that it does not float away. On land, ensure that the PLB is placed in the open away from overhangs so that it has the greatest view of the sky and therefore the best opportunity to be detected by orbiting satellites and over flying aircraft.

I’ve never used a 121MHz or 243MHz locator beacon before - why should I use a 406MHz locator beacon now?

We believe that it is good safety practice to carry a 406MHz locator beacon when
going into remote and hazardous areas within NZ. It is an inexpensive insurance
that, in the unlikely event that something does go wrong, you can seek search and rescue assistance. In many cases tramping clubs and other organisations have locator beacons available for hire at very reasonable rates and this is another means by which an individual can access this important safety device. A locator beacon is no substitute for good judgment and following accepted safety

Will 406MHz locator beacons work on the West Coast of the South Island?

Yes. Locator beacons must have line-of-sight contact with satellites to
communicate. Deep narrow gorges and large overhangs can affect beacon
communications with the geostationary satellites but the low orbit satellites will be able to pick up the 406MHz signal – it just might take a little longer to raise an alert.

Will my registered 406MHz locator beacon work overseas?

Yes. The Cospas-Sarsat system operates worldwide. Your beacon MUST BE
REGISERED here in New Zealand to ensure you receive an effective response to
your emergency in the rest of the world.

Can I travel on aircraft with my 406MHz locator beacon?

Yes, but you should declare it to your airlines. If you try and take it as cabin baggage you risk it being confiscated due to the nature of the batteries in the beacon. This depends on the airline. You are advised to put it into your hold baggage. Airline notification and securing the switch in the off position are essential.

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