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Author Topic:   EPIRB and Response Time
jimh posted 04-28-2012 03:09 PM ET (US)   Profile for jimh   Send Email to jimh  
On Friday evening I was about to sit down in front of my High-Definition television to watch some hockey on CBET Windsor 9, my local CBC outlet, when I discovered they weren't carrying the NHL game. Instead the CBC aired its regular program, The Fifth Estate, a television investigative journalism program of long standing regard and duration. The program was so interesting that I decided to watch it in preference to hockey. I explain.

I did not tune-in at the program start, but when I did join the broadcast it was immediately clear a survivor of a ship sinking was being interviewed. The program focused on the September 2005 sinking of the Canadian fishing vessel MELINA & KEITH II off the Northeast coast of Newfoundland, and on the response time of the Canadian Coast Guard and military assets tasked with providing rescue services.

The MELINA & KEITH II was carrying an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB), which was activated by an automatic process when the vessel rolled and inverted. The EPIRB worked perfectly. Its signal was received by an orbiting satellite, relayed via the established emergency network in a matter of three or four minutes, and the Canadian authorities in control of rescue assets were notified less than five minutes after activation. What happened after that is in itself a tragedy in this tragic story.

The EPIRB was turned on in the early afternoon when it automatically activated after automatically releasing from the inverted vessel. The inverted hull of the vessel remained afloat for about two hours, providing the crew with a safe haven by sitting on the inverted hull bottom. When the notice of the EPIRB activation reached the responsible authorities, several hours were spent attempting to verify the activation was a true emergency and not an accidental activation. After several hours, the shore-based authorities decided the EPIRB deserved investigation with their helicopter from Gander, Labrador, the closest rescue asset in terms of time to get on scene. However, by this time it was past 4 p.m., and the helicopter crew was no longer on duty. It took more than a hour to get the crew back to the base, and even more time to get airborne. By the time the rescue effort was underway, the MELINA & KEITH II had sunk, and two of its crew died within minutes of immersion in the cold North Atlantic water. Another fishing vessel arrived on the scene and rescued remaining crew. The rescue helicopter came a few minutes later.

I searched the CBC website to see if the program were available for on-line viewing, but I did not find it. It may be an older show pulled out from the archives as a re-run to fill in for the missing hockey game time slot. (The vagaries of the playoff schedule may have kept CBC from planning too far in advance for this particular evening broadcast schedule.)

I was impressed with how well the technology of the EPIRB worked. The radio links, the satellite links, the relay links, the internet links--all the links--worked just as they should have. What failed the crew of the MELINA & KEITH II was the bureaucracy of the rescue service and its 8-AM-to-4-PM mode of operation. The rescue authorities claimed they did not have a good position fix for the MELINA & KEITH, yet the vessel was showing up on their own Vessel Management System (VMS), a location system used to track the position of fishing vessels to monitor their compliance with restricted-fishing areas.

Later in the program, a segment investigated the helicopter equipment used in the rescue. The helicopters were found to be unreliable and maintenance intensive, requiring more than 50-hours of ground service for each hour of flying time to maintain them.

CBC News story on the issuance of a report on the sinking by the Canadian transportation safety board

The Canadian transportation safety board report

Vessel Monitoring System
VMS Canada

The investigation report notes that all EPIRB notices must be authenticated before search and rescue (SAR) assets are committed. The report mentions that a vessel that has also transmitted a digital selective calling (DSC) emergency broadcast signal is considered to have authenticated an emergency. It is considered unlikely that both an EPIRD and a DSC emergency call could be simultaneously initiated by accident or coincidence.

This is an interesting logical position. How do SAR authorities consider a DSC Emergency transmission? Does it need to be authenticated, too?

jimh posted 04-28-2012 03:44 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
I found the on-line version, but you need to be in Canada to watch it due to use rights restrictions:

There are plenty of interesting comments on the broadcast, including some from SAR personnel.

jimh posted 04-28-2012 05:41 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
Inasmuch as this incident occurred in 2005, I don't think the EPIRB on the vessel MELINA & KEITH II had its own GNSS receiver, so the the distress message the EPIRB sent did not include a position fix for the location of the distress. The transmission could have been initially received by a geo-stationary satellite, but that satellite could not deduce a position fix. It was only later when a low-Earth-orbiting satellite in the COPAS system overflew the distressed vessel that an approximate position could be deduced by the system. This is noted in the time line of the report (linked above).

In 2012 it is possible to get EPIRB and personal locator beacon (PLB) devices that have integral GNSS receivers, and those devices will be sending a position fix along with the distress message.


for more information on the spaced-based portion of the rescue system.

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