Commercial Vessel Compliance

Policy Letter: Accepted Distress Signal Devices for Ocean Going Vessels

The Office of Design and Engineering Standards has published guidance highlighting suitable distress signal devices for vessels that transit outside the territorial limits and may require long-range rescue response provided through the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). Policy Letter 03-19: “Accepted Distress Signal Devices for Ocean Going Vessels,” also serves to meet the provisions of 46 U.S.C. 3306(l), which requires distress signaling and location technology for persons working aboard inspected vessels.

The 406 MHz EPIRB for marine use remains the best available satellite distress signal technology for rescue operations based on Coast Guard accepted performance standards and regulatory requirements.

When properly maintained and registered, an EPIRB provides the distress alert, location, and vessel identification globally, with a 48-hour continuous signal. Until a suitable alternative is accepted, carriage of a 406 MHz EPIRB in accordance with SOLAS Regulation IV/7.1.6 shall be considered as complying with 46 U.S.C 3306(l).

Operators of vessels on ocean routes should verify they meet minimum distress signal requirements in accordance with the applicable Coast Guard regulations in 46 CFR 199.60 and SOLAS, with EPIRBs that are FCC listed/approved and properly registered with NOAA. These actions ensure the best emergency response from rescuers within the GMDSS.

Owners and operators may consider augmenting their distress signal suite with 406 MHz PLBs for crewmembers. Although PLB performance is not equivalent to an EPIRB and methods of carriage or deployment have not been established, the PLB, when properly maintained and registered, provides the distress alert, location, and owner identification globally. 

Any single distress signal device should be considered as a part of a vessel’s complete emergency response and distress signal system. Other communications, safety, and distress signal equipment should always be considered for outfitting and appropriately used to maintain personal preparedness for a worse case distress situation.

For more details, view the entire policy letter. Please contact the Lifesaving and Fire Safety Division (CG-ENG-4) at with any questions on the material.

This blog is not a replacement or substitute for the formal posting of regulations and updates or existing processes for receiving formal feedback of the same. Links provided on this blog will direct the reader to official source documents, such as the Federal Register, Homeport and the Code of Federal Regulations. These documents remain the official source for regulatory information published by the Coast Guard.

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