Safety Gear & Technology 2023: ‘A Tectonic Shift’

The contents of an ACR Electronics RapidDitch Bag survival kit. Photo: ACR.

Many times when the annual Fishermen’s News safety gear and technology articles are written, the updates usually concern incremental updates to various pieces of gear used on or near commercial fishing vessels.

But in this instance, our article delves into some momentous happenings in the safety gear industry brought on by new international regulations.

As of July 2022, any Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, or EPIRB, newly installed on a commercial vessel must have an internal Automatic Identification System (AIS) tracking system used for collision avoidance on sea and monitoring of maritime traffic.

New EPIRBs are required to have an internal AIS locating signal and an internal Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) receiver, along with 406 MHz and 121.5 MHz transmitters.

The mandate was put in place by the International Maritime Organization, or IMO, the London-based division of the United Nations that regulates shipping throughout the globe. The new rules also state that infrared strobe lights must be standard within EPIRB devices.

Due to the new rules, companies around the globe making and selling maritime safety gear and technology have had to adjust their manufacturing and sales operations. Among those companies is ACR Electronics, one of America’s leading development center for emergency beacons.

ACR, which has been around since 1956 and has captured an estimated 90-plus percent of the market share in the North American maritime safety gear industry, according to the company, also owns Ocean Signal, the top brand in Europe and Australia, which it purchased about nine years ago.

Both companies’ products are sold around the world and retain different brand names, with ACR based in the U.S. and Ocean Signal in the U.K., but the two companies have the same ownership.

An ACR Electronics RapidDitch Bag, a survival kit with pockets, tethers and loops for organizing and storing essential safety gear. (Above) The contents of an ACR Electronics RapidDitch Bag survival kit. Photo: ACR.

Rich Galasso, ACR’s North American sales manager said that due to the IMO’s mandates, his company has begun to upgrade its product line and add new features.

“It’s a bit of a tectonic shift,” he told Fishermen’s News about the changes triggered by the IMO mandate. “After many decades of the same product—just smaller, lighter and cheaper, but it’s been doing the same thing for decades—now they’ve mandated into this commercial segment a requirement of two additional features, and we’ve actually got a third feature that was sort of approved last year and we now put in the same product.”

“So there’s sort of three new dramatic features—two of them are mandated—under this IMO standard,” he explained.

Infrared Strobes

Regarding the infrared strobe light mandate, it’s required that going forward, such lights are standard in EPIRBs, alongside the previously standard white strobe light.

“Think about it—a lot of fishermen these days have infrared cameras on their boats,” Galasso said. “These pilots that are looking for you at night, Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force pilots—they all use these infrared goggles. They actually pick up infrared signals better than they pick up white lights on these cameras and these lenses.”

“It’s mandated for the commercial market to have what’s called a Category 1 EPIRB. The term ‘Category 1’ means fully automatic,” he continued. “And that means something that will deploy on its own. It reacts to water pressure—not necessarily depth. It reacts to water pressure.”

Collision Avoidance Systems

The second big new feature for EPIRBs is the mandatory AIS collision avoidance system. “We (in the industry) have to put an AIS frequency inside the EPIRB, as well. So not only is it transmitting on 406 megahertz to the satellites … not only is it collecting GPS data and transmitting that, not only does it have a white strobe light, not only does it have an infrared strobe light, it now has the ability to transmit AIS.”

“And the benefit of that, the beauty of that system, is that the 406 megahertz system goes to satellites, which then gets routed around so that it comes to a clearance center,” he said.

“If you put an AIS transmitter inside the beacon, it’s now transmitting AIS the same time it goes off, so that means boats all around you that use AIS, because they’re required in most commercial applications to have AIS (will receive the distress signal when it’s sent).”

“The point is that there may be boats around you within line of sight, close by, to hear your emergency,” he said. “They may not have ever had an understanding that you were in trouble, but now are receiving your distress. So essentially, the boat that might be two miles away from me might be a quicker and much more satisfactory rescue than a Coast Guard boat that might be 100 miles away.”

So it really opens up the door to making everybody around you potentially a lifesaver, and that’s a big deal,” he continued.

“(Infrared strobes and AIS) are two big features that you can get excited by that a year ago, we couldn’t even tell you about,” he remarked.

Galasso said his company began shipping state-of-the-art EPIRBS “in the February-March timeframe” and that not just commercial vessel operators, but also recreational boaters have been buying them.

(Top)  An Ocean Signal ERPIB device. Photo: Ocean Signal. (Above) An Ocean Signal EPIRB3 rescue beacon. Image: Ocean Signal.

“It has a big value all the way around; not just to the mandated world, but it really opens up some new feature sets and new technology which has never been in this segment. So it’s a big deal,” he said. “AIS and infrared strobe meet the requirement for IMO but it’s a big deal to the recreational market as well.”

Return Link Services

Galasso also said that ACR has also introduced a third feature to some of its products that’s not part of the mandate, a feature called RLS, which stands for Return Link Service.

RLS allows for a confirmation signal, for example a blue light flashing if distress signal has been received, localized and forwarded to government authorities for action.

Or, if the beacon has a digital display, a written message appears on the display rather than a confirmation signal being sent.

The RLS confirmation signal or message should typically be received back by the RLS beacon within 10-20 minutes as a Search and Rescue team works to facilitate a rescue operation.

The RLS confirmation does not mean, however, that a rescue has yet been organized and/or launched, just that the distress alert has been received and routed to the appropriate government agencies.

The product came about, Galasso after receiving feedback from people who had used ACR’s products during life-and-death situations in which they survived.

“The number one complaint we’ve ever heard is ‘I got no idea if someone’s receiving that (distress signal) information’,” Galasso said. “We have heard that since the first EPIRB and the first PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) were ever made.”

“Since the first person was saved, they were like ‘I could see it was working, but I wasn’t sure if it was working really. I don’t know if I was really doing it right’,” he remarked, explaining that people use the equipment during the worst, most stressful moment of their life and have to use a piece of technology they’ve never used before.”

“They bought it hoping to never use it,” he said, explaining that some customers who wound up using the emergency equipment said they spent hours staring at their rescue device wondering, until a boat or helicopter arrived.

“For many years, we were pushing the (U.S.) government to put RLS into the technology where now when you send a distress (signal), they can notify you back and say, ‘we’ve received your distress’,” he said. “So you’ll know within moments of you having that device go off that they’ve receive your distress.”

“We’ve been building that technology into our products for the last 17 years, waiting, waiting, waiting. Finally last year, in June of 2022 … the U.S. market finally did (mandate) it,” Galasso said. “And now, everything we do (manufacture) going forward … we’ve now added that RLS feature into.”

“We think it’s important enough to just put it in all our products automatically,” he said. “It’s included in everything we build going forward.”

“We think it is so important and such a big deal because one of the things we’ve learned from all the statistics in our business … is the will to live,” he explained. “If you’ve got a way to communicate that you’re in trouble, your will to live goes up.”

‘Game Changers’

“There’s three tremendously new features that have showed up that have never been involved in this technology at all which are game changers, which are a big deal,” Galasso said.

“This is the first time in a long time—many decades—that there’s something new to talk about from a technological and capability standpoint for a 406 (MHz) beacon,” he added. “It’s just that big a deal. And people don’t know about it yet. It’s so now that people are still learning about it.”                                                                                                                                            

He also talked up his company’s PLB that incorporates the latest technology.

“There’s also the very first PLBs that not only encompass the 406 and the 125 (megahertz requirement) with the GPS and the built-in strobe light, we’ve now added in our AIS PLB 450 … that’s also a revolutionary, completely unique product,” he said.

“This now combines everything in the v5 EPIRB into a personal device that you can wear on your body, wear on your lifejacket,” Galasso explained. “When you’re in the water and your lifejacket inflates, it can automatically activate.”

“Not only is the IMO EPIRB a big deal (but) nobody’s ever done it on a personal device. Nobody’s even thought about it, I think, on a personal device,” he continued. “So we’re the first ones to have it. We’re the first one to combine a traditional PLB with an AIS capability. There’s nothing like it on the market. That is really a revolutionary new product.”  

Mark Edward Nero can be reached at