The other day I was walking to work listening to the podcast This American Life. The title of that show was “calling for help.” If you’re not familiar, This American Life presents a weekly hour-long podcast usually containing two or three stories loosely related to an overarching theme. This week, one was about an autistic girl and her best friend. Another was about a man who asked a politician from Montana for relationship advice. The longest and most interesting one was about a family who, while sailing across the Pacific Ocean, had to abandon their boat and activate an emergency beacon.
The boat had encountered a number of obstacles during their attempt to cross the Pacific. The mast was badly damaged. The bilge pump, which pumps water out of the boat, was malfunctioning. To top it all off, their one-year-old daughter had come down with a mysterious illness. After talking the situation over, the family decided to activate their emergency beacon (EPIRB). Soon after, a pair of emergency rescue divers were dropped from a plane and stayed with the family for several days to administer emergency care until a Navy Frigate arrived for the rescue.
There was quite a bit of news coverage. Many people went to the internet to discuss the parenting, public cost, sailing mistakes, etc. However, one thing rarely discussed was the actual people doing the rescuing. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? Can anyone buy an EPIRB and expect rescuing? Who comes to the rescue and who sends them? So, as any good millennial law librarian would do, I did the research.
First, an EPIRB , short for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, is a sort of honing device carried by boats. During an emergency requiring rescue, the operator activates the EPIRB, which sends a distress signal, via satellite, to a Mission Control Center (MCC). The Mission Control Center then relays any available information to a Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) which coordinates the rescue itself. The US maintains two Airforce RCCs and eleven US Coast Guard RCCs.
The MCCs are part of a larger international organization called COSPAS-SARSAT (SARSAT). SARSAT was created through The International Cospas-Sarsat Programme Agreement (ICSPA) . Thirty-nine countries currently participate in SARSAT, each providing at least one Mission Control Center and assisting in maintenance of the SARSAT satellites.
The Domestic US arm of SARSAT is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. These are the same people who bring you the National Weather Service, the National Ocean Service, and the National Geodetic Service. The FCC also promulgates regulations pertaining to the EPIRB Transmitters at 47 C.F.R. §§ 80.1051 et seq. (2014).
It’s kind of amazing that something so simple as an emergency beacon is part of such a complex system. I never would have imagined when I started researching that the foundations of the EPIRB would rely not just US laws and regulations, but international agreements as well.