When Murphy’s Law suddenly sinks or disables your boat, your Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) is your no-nonsense, last-ditch rescue resource.

Cell phones might not work, depending upon how dry they stay and how far you are from the closest cellular tower. A marine radio can be a life saver only as long as your boat’s electrical system provides power to run it and your antenna remains above water.

This leaves us with our self-contained EPIRB. Category 1 EPIRBs float free from their mount as a boat sinks and activate automatically. Category 2 EPIRBs must be removed from their bracket before they sink with your boat and triggered manually.

Either way, you should immediately tether the device to your life jacket so it doesn’t drift away.

An EPIRB starts broadcasting as soon as it is activated.

Starting Feb, 1, 2009, the international COSPAS-SARSAT satellites stopped processing the old 121.5 MHZ distress frequency; EPIRBs now must transmit on 406 MHz to be legally sold in the U.S. New distress beacons using 406 MHz also emit a more-powerful signal that is easier for rescuers to home in on, and it is encoded with your boat’s identity so they know what to look for.

EPIRB distress signals are detected anywhere in the world by the international network of COSPAS-SARSAT satellites that are in polar orbits. They are also detected by the GEOSTAR system of geostationary GOES weather and other satellites.

The geostationary satellites instantly pass on the alert, but if your EPIRB doesn’t have an internal GPS receiver to include your position in its distress signal they can’t tell where you are.

The orbiting COSPAS-SARSAT satellites will find you, but it might take an extra hour or two to fix your approximate position without your GPS position.

By the way, SARSAT stands for Search And Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking and COSPAS is a Russian acronym for Cosmicheskaya Sistyema Poiska Avariynich Sudov, which translates roughly into “space system for search of distressed vessels.”

New McMurdo SmartFind and Kannad SafePro EPIRBS will be officially announced this month at the Marine Equipment Trade Show in Amsterdam.

These will be the first EPIRBs to broadcast beacon transmissions at 406 Mhz and 121.5 MHz, and receive their GPS satellite positioning signals from our NavStar GPS, Russia’s GLONASS and (when operational) Europe’s Galileo systems.

They also will be compatible with the coming MEOSAR (Medium Earth Orbit Search And Rescue) next-generation satellites for the COSPAS-SARSAT system.

This new family of McMurdo and Kannad EPIRBs will also broadcast AIS (automatic identification system) signals to allow surrounding AIS-equipped private and commercial vessels to see your position on their screens.

Using signals from multiple GPS systems will speed position fixing and make the beacons’ positions more accurate. Adding AIS position transmissions will boost local tracking and rescue capabilities, and possibly get you rescued before COSPAS-SARSAT can react.

The faster the rescue, the greater the odds are that your emergency will be more like an inconvenience than a catastrophic event.