Our deliberations have now concluded.
I thank my fellow Board members for their preparation and participation in today’s meeting. We discussed important topics that will benefit the final report and inform our safety recommendations.
There’s one recommendation I want to highlight in particular. It’s a recommendation we reiterated today that ties into an issue on our Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements to “Improve Passenger and Fishing Vessel Safety.”
I’m referring to our recommendation that the Coast Guard require all vessel personnel be provided with a personal locator beacon, or “PLB.”
As you’ve heard today, PLBs are lifesaving devices.
I have one with me here today: these devices are small, meant to be worn on the body — often on a life vest or on a belt loop. Unlike EPIRBs, which can float free of the vessel and drift separately from survivors, PLBs are meant to go with an individual.
In other words, PLBs are meant to help mariners in the water who are separated from the vessel by providing an emergency alert directly to the relevant authorities and helping rescuers locate mariners in distress, thereby increasing their chances of survival.
Some people even say PLBs take the “search” out of search and rescue.
The history of our PLB recommendation tells a powerful story about the importance of emergency beacons.
The first time the NTSB recommended that the Coast Guard require PLBs was following our investigation into the El Faro: a cargo ship that was traveling from Florida to Puerto Rico with 33 crewmembers on board. It sank in 2015 after sailing into the path of a hurricane.
No survivors were found, despite an exhaustive search and rescue effort. It’s one of the deadliest marine accidents we’ve ever investigated. In fact, the El Faro remains one of the most challenging and resource-intensive investigations we have ever undertaken, in any mode.
In response to our recommendation, the Coast Guard stated that PLBs didn’t provide accurate enough location information; they said that they’d explore other technologies instead. That was in 2018.
The NTSB disagreed and asked the Coast Guard to reconsider. We referred them to the El Faro report, which outlined how PLBs can accurately narrow down the search area to about 3 miles. And newer models? They can locate people within 300 feet.
Think about how useful that would have been in the case of the El Faro, where rescuers spent 275 hours searching nearly 200,000 square miles…and located zero survivors.
Upon receiving the Coast Guard’s letter, we classified the recommendation as Open – Unacceptable Response, where it’s remained ever since.
Around the time we received the Coast Guard’s response to our recommendation, Congress passed a law that directed the Coast Guard to require “freight vessels be outfitted with distress signaling and location technology.”
It’s been four years since that law was passed; the Coast Guard has yet to satisfy Congress’ mandate.
The second time we issued our PLB recommendation was after the Scandies Rose fishing vessel capsized and sank off the coast of Alaska. This was on New Year’s Eve, 2019. There were seven crewmembers onboard.
Only two of the crewmembers were rescued from the icy waters by helicopter. The total search and rescue effort lasted 20 hours and covered 1400 square miles.
The two survivors’ coordinates were shared with a second rescue helicopter, which set out to look for the other five crewmembers. But those coordinates were relayed incorrectly — which meant the second team searched the wrong area.
As we said in our investigation report, PLBs can reduce or eliminate such errors by providing survivors’ coordinates to the rescue team continuously and correctly.
But the other five Scandies Rose crewmembers were never found. PLBs might have saved them.
The Coast Guard did not respond to our PLB recommendation following the Scandies Rose tragedy.
Less than a year later, we investigated another fishing vessel accident: the Emmy Rose, which sank off the coast of Massachusetts in late 2020. There were four crew on board.
The search and rescue effort lasted 38 hours and covered 2200 square miles — but no survivors were found. Our investigation found that PLBs would have improved the survival chances of the Emmy Rose crew.
That is why, just weeks ago, we once again recommended the Coast Guard require these devices. This time, they did respond. On September 16, 2022, the Deputy Commandant for Operations provided an update. I’d like to read a few lines:
“I concur with the intent of this recommendation. The Coast Guard remains committed to providing mariners the best opportunity for rescue in the event of a casualty, and strongly encourages mariners who are at increased risk of falling overboard to use personal locator beacons. […] However, advancements in distress alerting and locating technology have led to other solutions […] which provide a range of enhanced services at different costs to the vessel operators. […] As such, the Coast Guard plans to publish an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to gather feedback and explore all available options for new requirements related to personal locator beacons or emergency distress communications.”
I’m glad that the Coast Guard is recognizing the importance of PLBs — but it’s clear that not much else has changed.
Their most recent response shows the Coast Guard doesn’t plan to issue a final regulation any time soon — which means real safety benefits, if any, would be years down the road.
The Board’s action today marks the fourth time that the NTSB has called on the Coast Guard to require PLBs for seafarers.
None of the people aboard the El Faro…the Scandies Rose…the Emmy Rose…or the had these devices. If they did, perhaps more of them would be with us today.
Instead, 55 people died or were unrecovered in these tragedies — 55 people gone forever.
Saving lives. That’s the greatest promise of PLBs — but it’s not the only benefit. By locating survivors faster, these devices can also reduce the amount of trauma they experience.
Consider this: the two Scandies Rose survivors were treated for hypothermia after spending hours in the Alaska waters during the dead of winter.
And several of the Seacor Power survivors drifted for hours in turbulent waters, which one Coast Guard responder described as “a washing machine,” before they were found miles from the accident site.
These mariners could have…should have…been rescued sooner — and they likely would have been if they had PLBs, as our investigations have shown repeatedly.
While it’s ideal for every person onboard to have a PLB, these devices can be helpful even if there’s not 100% uptake, or if some don’t activate properly.
Search teams can plot the PLB distress signals they do receive to understand the direction mariners are drifting — information that can help narrow down the search for other potential survivors.
For example, three of the Seacor Power survivors drifted West-Southwest. If even one of them had an activated, functioning PLB when the vessel capsized, rescuers would’ve had an excellent lead on where to focus the search for more survivors.
Or consider the example of a life raft: if at least one person in a group of survivors has a functioning, activated PLB, the device can help save the life of everyone in that group.
Here’s another benefit: when used in conjunction with other technologies, PLBs can help emergency responders distinguish between the “signal and the noise” of incoming alerts, cutting down on the response time.
Before the Seacor Power vessel capsized, the Coast Guard was “very heavily inundated with potential distress calls.” This is not uncommon; about 98% of alerts from emergency locator transmitters, EPIRBs, and PLBs are false alarms. While that might sound like a strike against PLBs, it’s not — and here’s why.
With only EPIRB alerts coming from the vessel, it took the Coast Guard 46 minutes to realize it was a real emergency, not a false alarm. This delayed the search and rescue response as well as the notification to Good Samaritan vessels.
Imagine how much faster the response would’ve been if multiple PLB alerts were also coming in from people onboard the Seacor Power.
Imagine how many more survivors there might have been.
In recommending PLBs, our goal is always to save a life or prevent an injury on our waterways. But even when that’s not possible, PLBs are still vital. Why?
Because they can help locate the remains of people lost at sea.
It’s tragic enough to lose a loved one in a marine accident. It must be even more difficult to hear your loved one is missing.
That is what the families of seven people who perished on the Seacor Power have had to face. They join the families of five people who died in the Scandies Rose tragedy…four families from the Emmy Rose tragedy…and 33 families from the El Faro tragedy.
It’s heartbreaking. And it didn’t need to happen.
In total, we’ve been waiting five years for the Coast Guard to implement our PLB recommendation — a call to action we’re renewing here today.
We cannot…must not…wait any longer. That’s why I’m urging all mariners and their employers not to wait; you can improve safety today. I urge you to provide your crew with PLBs now.
The lifesaving promise of PLBs cannot be overstated. According to NOAA, devices like PLBs have led to the rescue of more than 10,000 people in the United States since 1982 — and 326 people this year alone.
They’re also widely available at a relatively low cost. PLBs range in price from about $250 to $400. The one I have here, for example, costs about $340.
$340 to save a life: I can think of no better return on investment.
In closing, I’d like to extend the Board’s thanks to the NTSB team, including our colleagues in the Office of Marine Safety, the Office of Research and Engineering, and the Office of General Counsel for their work over the course of this investigation and in the development of an excellent report.
We also express our appreciation to our colleagues in the Office of Human Capital Management and Training, the Office of the Chief Information Officer, and the Digital Services Division for their vital support of this meeting.
Finally, I’d like to thank the Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications for its diligent work and advocacy to improve safety. When acted upon, the recommendations we’ve issued and reiterated today will save lives on our waterways.
Going forward, the NTSB looks forward to working with the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Weather Service, the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. Air Force, the Offshore Marine Service Association, and SEACOR Marine to implement our recommendations.
At the same time, NTSB will not stop working to create a safe transportation system where there is no longer a need for our recommendations.
Thank you. We stand adjourned.