NOAA's polar-orbiting and geostationary
satellites, along with Russia's Cospas spacecraft, are part of the
sophisticated, international Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided
Tracking System, called COSPAS-SARSAT. The system uses a cluster of
satellites to detect and locate distress signals from emergency
beacons onboard aircraft, boats and from hand-held personal locator
beacons. Once the satellites pinpoint the location of the distress
signals within the United States or surrounding waters, the
information is relayed to the SARSAT Mission Control Center in
Suitland, Md., and sent to a Rescue Coordination Center operated by
the U.S. Air Force or U.S. Coast Guard.
"This is an outstanding example of how
NOAA science brings great value to the nation," said retired Navy
Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Ph.D., under secretary of commerce
for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. "Americans rely on
NOAA for a wide variety of services, and saving lives is one of our
most important missions."
The emergency beacons use the
satellites that are part of NOAA's observing network of land, sea
and atmospheric sensors that help the agency gather weather, water
and climate data; protect and manage fisheries and marine
ecosystems; promote efficient and environmentally safe commerce and
transportation; and provide vital information in support of homeland
Last year also saw a rise in the
number people buying and registering emergency beacons: 18,343
beacons were registered in 2004, compared with 15,377 in 2003.
"Without question, the increase in
rescues is linked to the growing number of emergency beacons in
use," said Gregory W. Withee, assistant administrator of NOAA's
Satellite and Information Service. "In each case, a rescue equals a
life saved, which is what the SARSAT program is all about."
Since its creation in 1982,
COSPAS-SARSAT has been credited with more than 18,000 rescues
worldwide, including 4,917 in the United States. Each year, most of
the rescues happen at sea. In 2004, for example, 223 of the total
260 people saved in the United States were water rescues.
Ajay Mehta, NOAA's SARSAT program
manager, said an aggressive educational outreach about emergency
beacons, plus advanced technology onboard vessels, which helps keep
them from harm's way, is fueling the increase in lives saved. "We're
targeting the recreational enthusiasts -- boaters, pilots, campers
-- with the message that owning an emergency beacon, and using it
properly, can be the difference between life and death," he said.
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Personal locator beacons -- used by
hikers, campers and other outdoor enthusiasts -- have saved 38 lives
since they became operational nationwide in July 2003.
Mehta added that registering the
beacons, which is required by law and can be done online, puts
response teams in a better position to make a rescue. "We have the
owner's name, address, phone number and even a way to contact family
members, all of which helps the RCC respond when time is critical,"
Mehta also said that older beacons,
which operate on the 121.5 megahertz frequency, will be phased out
by early 2009, when newer, more accurate 406 megahertz beacons will
be the standard.
"The 121.5 megahertz beacons hamper
search and rescue efforts because of their poor location accuracy
and lack of any identification, which means we don't know if the
distress signal is coming from an actual emergency beacon or a
faulty television," Mehta said. "The newer 406 megahertz beacons can
be instantly detected and use global positioning system technology,
which helps us identify, verify and locate distress signals faster
and more accurately, while reducing the impact of false alerts."
Emergency beacon owners can register
their devices online, using the National Beacon Registration
NOAA Satellites and Information
Service is America's primary source of space-based oceanographic,
meteorological and climate data. NOAA, an agency of the U.S.
Commerce Department, 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
the nation's coastal and marine resources.
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration news release]