NTSB Urges Vessel Owners to Provide Personal Locator Devices for Their Crews

Citing numerous instances where the use of personal locator devices could have potentially prevented casualties at sea, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a new safety alert recommending that the owners and operators of vessels equip crew members with personal locator devices.

While the U.S. Coast Guard does not yet require the provision of these devices, the NTSB has been recommending that they do so since 2017. The longstanding government recommendation and ready availability of the technology could suggest that owners and operators who do not supply this equipment might be failing to meet reasonable safety standards and therefore liable for injuries that result.

How Personal Locator Devices Work

A personal locator device transmits a signal that can be used to pinpoint the location of a mariner in the water so that rescue crews can reach them quickly. Two of the most common types of personal locator devices are personal locator beacons (PLBs) and satellite emergency notification devices (SENDs.) Many of these devices transmit a signal that is picked up by the Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking system (SARSAT) which is a cooperative system involving over 40 countries who work together to monitor emergency signals. Some devices transmit to a commercial satellite system in a low earth orbit. There are also personal locator devices that transmit on terrestrial frequencies.

A traditional PLB transmits a one-way distress signal calling for help with no details and no potential for two-way communication. SEND devices may send one-way signals or allow for two-way satellite transmissions.

These devices are designed to transmit the location of an individual needing assistance, as opposed to the location of a vessel in distress. Laws require many commercial vessels to carry emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs), but these devices do not help to locate mariners in the water who may have drifted away from the vessel. The NTSB found that commonly available devices report an individual’s position with an accuracy range of about 300 feet and that the search and rescue notification is nearly instant when the device is activated.

Situations Where Personal Locator Devices Could Have or Did Make a Difference

Investigations by the NTSB revealed that in situations where crewmembers were forced to abandon a vessel without a way to effectively communicate their locations to search and rescue operations, PLBs or other personal locator devices could have or did make a significant difference in the success of rescue efforts.

In the safety alert, the NTSB described four instances where personal locator devices could have prevented casualties and two situations where the use of personal safety locator devices helped rescuers reach crew members in time to save them. One such incident was the capsizing of the fishing vessel Scandies Rose in 2019. The vessel’s EPIRB signal could not be received and due to miscommunication about the vessel’s location, when rescuers were sent out, many went to the wrong area. The crewmembers were forced to abandon the vessel and enter the water and no crewmembers had means of communicating. Only two of the seven crewmembers were eventually rescued. The NTSB concluded that if the crew had personal locator devices providing updated and correct location information, search and rescue operations would have been much more effective.

They contrast these and other tragic deaths at sea with situations such as a sinking of the fishing vessel Ambition in 2016. In that case, the Coast Guard did not receive the captain’s Mayday call. However, a crewmember used a SEND that triggered a quick response from the commercial response coordination center. All crewmembers were rescued safely.

Recommendations from the NTSB

The NTSB recommends that all owners and operators of vessels supplement their EPIRBs by equipping each crewmember with a personal locator device such as a PLB or SEND. Each device must be registered through either the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or the private network associated with the manufacturer, depending on the type of device.

Owners and operators are urged to ensure that crewmembers carry these devices by having them zipped into a pocket, attached to a belt, or attached to a personal floatation device. In addition, vessel operators should help crewmembers understand how the devices work and the limitations of the devices.

Help When Vessel Owners and Operators Fail to Take the Right Safety Precautions

The safety recommendations of the NTSB cause responsible owners and operators of commercial vessels to take the right steps to ensure the safety of crew and passengers. Owners and operators who put profits ahead of safety often ignore the recommendations despite the fact that the recommendations could prevent injuries and save lives of the mariners.

Over the years, Latti & Anderson LLP has many represented many families who have lost loved ones when a vessel sinks and the USCG is unable to locate the crew members in the water. If a personal locator device such as a PLB or SEND was required on the vessels, lives might have been saved.    The recent NTSB’s safety alert is a step in the right direction of protecting the mariner’s life out at sea.  Hopefully, owners and operators will start providing personal locator devices for crew members.

The experienced team at Latti & Anderson, LLP helps mariners and their families recover the compensation they deserve after they suffer harm caused by owners and operators. If you have an incident you’d like to discuss, contact us for a free confidential case evaluation.