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Since its inception in 1982, the International Satellite System for Search and Rescue (, has been linking those in distress with search and rescue responders around the world.

The COSPAS-SARSAT system has three key components:

  • the emergency beacons that transmit a distress signal;
  • the satellites that capture and calculate the location of the distress signals ; and
  • the ground stations and data distribution network that relays the distress alerts to the appropriate rescue coordination centres worldwide.

The key attribute for modern COSPAS-SARSAT beacons is their ability to transmit a digitally-encoded signal on 406 MHz. When properly registered with the Canadian Beacon Registry (, SAR authorities will also know who is in distress, in addition to their location. 406 MHz beacon registration is therefore a critical step in getting the most out of the COSPAS-SARSAT system.

Aside from the initial cost to purchase a 406 MHz emergency beacon, there is no subscription fee for COSPAS-SARSAT monitoring, nor is there any fee for registering it with the Canadian Beacon Registry.

Types of 406 MHz Emergency Beacons

There are three types of COSPAS-SARSAT emergency beacons, each designed for a specific purpose. All 406 MHz emergency beacons are also equipped with a secondary homing signal on 121.5 MHz, which helps rescuers locate the beacon in conditions of darkness or reduced visibility. Many 406 MHz beacons are also capable of transmitting GPS coordinates along with the distress signal, which truly takes the “search” out of “search and rescue”.

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)—Personal Use

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are specifically designed to be light-weight, portable, and to withstand the elements. They are triggered manually using a simple two-step process, which helps prevent accidental activations. While intended primarily for use by those working and recreating on the ground or inland waters (e.g. hiking, canoeing), pilots and mariners are also using PLBs on board aircraft and boats as personal distress alerting devices. Sometimes these PLBs are marketed as “Survival ELTs” or “Survival EPIRBs”.

Police forces across Canada respond to SAR bincidents triggered by PLBs that occur on the ground, or on inland lakes and rivers within their jurisdiction. Specially trained ground SAR volunteers may also be called upon to assist. Parks Canada’s public safety specialists are responsible for ground SAR within national parks.

Pilots and passengers who carry PLBs on aircraft should confirm that their Canadian Beacon Registry record reflects this use, to ensure that the appropriate air SAR response (Canadian Forces or CASARA) is coordinated.

Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) – Maritime Use

Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) transmitting on a primary frequency of 406 MHz are required on ships, fishingvessels and tugboats above a certain size andweight, as outlined in the Canada Shipping Act andassociated regulations. Class 1 EPIRBs may be activated manually, or automaticallywhen they come in contact with water. They are also designed to float free from a sinking ship. Class 2 EPIRBs can only be activated manually. Vessels are not required by law to carry an EPIRB (e.g. small pleasure craft) are encouraged to do so voluntarily.

The Canadian Coast Guard, assisted by the Canadian Forces, respond to maritime SAR incidents within Canada's ocean jurisdiction and in the Canadian waters of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence System. Volunteers of the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary may also be called upon to assist. Response to marine SAR incidents that occur on Canada’s inland lakes and rivers is the responsibility of the local police, who may also call upon SAR volunteer teams to assist.

Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs) - Aviation Use

Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs) are purpose-built for aviation use. An ELT is fixed to an aircraft’s structure, usually near the tail, and is automatically activated by the force of a crash. The ELTs can also be manually activated, including a cockpit-mounted switch required for a 406 MHz installation. Two types of ELTs are currently available to aircraft owners: analog units which transmit on a primary frequency of 121.5 MHz; and the digital 406 MHz units. As of February 1, 2009, analog 121.5 MHz ELTs are no longer monitored by satellite, and do not therefore provide early alerting or a satellite-derived location for an aircraft in distress. The requirements for using ELTs on aircraft are specified in the Canadian Aviation Regulations.

The Canadian Forces is responsible for responding to search and rescue incidents involving aircraft, including those incidents signalled by an ELT alert. Volunteers from the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association may also be called upon to assist.