Tuesday, March 20, 2001

Hal Howard displays an EPIRB unit sold
at NAVTECH Marine Electronics.

EPIRBs may
become mandatory

However, buyers face costs
up to $2,500 for such equipment

By Lisa Asato

When it comes to EPIRBs, nearly everyone agrees on two things: They're a lifesaver, and they cost too much.

EPIRBs -- Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons -- allow seagoing vessels to emit satellite distress signals.

This session, state lawmakers are considering a bill that would require all vessels operating in state waters to be equipped with one. That includes kayaks as well as vessels that travel interisland, says Sen. Cal Kawamoto (D, Waipahu-Pearl City), a sponsor of the bill.

The House Water and Land Use and Transportation committees are scheduled to hear Senate Bill 216 tomorrow at 10:30 a.m. in Room 309 of the state Capitol.

Kawamoto introduced the measure to ease the cost of search and rescue operations by the U.S. Coast Guard, which run about $9,000 an hour, he said.

But Lt. Greg Fondran said those costs aren't a problem. "It does cost money, fuel, and wear and tear on craft, but we don't track it like people think," said Fondran, a public affairs officer for the Honolulu-based 14th U.S. Coast Guard District, which does search-and-rescue operations through the central and western Pacific Ocean. "We're budgeted well-enough for every search and rescue for however long it takes."

The real cost comes at the expense of performing its law-enforcement duties such as monitoring drug trafficking and protecting monk seals and humpback whales, he said.

Although no one argues against the benefits of an EPIRB, cost is keeping buyers away. Top of the line EPIRBs run from $1,500 to $2,500, according to one dealer.

"If (lawmakers) are going to make it mandatory, they're going to have to make it a lot cheaper," said Charlie Galanto, captain of the 55-foot catamaran Royal Hawaiian.

Galanto said he's made "hundreds of channel crossings and been to all the islands without an EPIRB" over the last three decades. But now that he's starting a charter business, he says, "I wouldn't go out without it."

Last year the Coast Guard responded to 330 search-and-rescue cases in Hawaii, including false alarms, Fondran said.

That included the high-profile, successful operation in which the team searched for four days for two men and their dog after their 15-foot vessel ran out of gas on a round trip from Oahu to Molokai. The men didn't have an EPIRB and a cellular phone didn't work in the open sea.

"We were working with scant information," Fondran said, referring to the case. "With an EPIRB you got a definite time of distress, and you know where you're looking ... we like to say it takes the "search" out of search and rescue."

EPIRBs have been criticized for a rash of false alarms. But top of the line EPIRBs allow search and rescue operators to call the vessel's operator to confirm whether it's a false alarm or a real incident, said Hal Howard, head of sales and marketing at Navtech Marine Electronics.

Howard said with more reports of people getting stranded more people are buying EPIRBs. "It's like insurance," he said. "It's one of those things that you buy and hope you never have to use and yet it costs so much."

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