ELT False Alarms Vastly Outnumber Distress Situations

 - July 30, 2018, 11:28 AM

More than 98 percent of the 8,898 alerts from aviation 406-MHz emergency locator transmitters (ELTs) last year in the U.S. were false alarms. Only 112 alerts were authentic distress situations, according to figures from the NOAA Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) team.  

Thus, the FAA has published Information for Operators 18007 to provide awareness to aircraft operators and pilots on the problem of ELT false alerts. In addition to incorrect testing and maintenance, accidental false alerts can be caused by improper installation, unfamiliarity with beacon operation, and hard landings, according to the FAA. Search-and-rescue (SAR) personnel respond immediately to every activation of a 406-MHz ELT. This response will stop only when it has been proven that the activation was a false alert.

“Because of this, every false alert has the potential to put rescuers in harm’s way and waste valuable resources,” the FAA said. “If the ELT is accidentally activated, cancel the false alert by calling the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at (800) 851-3051, or the nearest FAA ATC facility.”

A method to help save time and resources for SAR personnel is to have a registered ELT. The quickest way for SAR personnel to confirm a false alert is to place a telephone call to the person to whom the ELT is registered. With a properly registered  ELT, the transmitted signal includes a digital code that can be used to identify the owner. Operators should also ensure that ELT self-tests and annual tests are conducted according to the manufacturer’s instructions and FAA recommendations.


Where did the number of 112 legit alerts come from? According the the SARSAT site, 275 people were rescued in 132 separate incidents in 2017. Just curious? Thanks. Tim

Thanks for your question, Tim. I also see 132 on the NOAA website, but that could include 121.5-MHz alerts, as well as 406-MHz ones (story specifically says 406-MHz only). I have a query into the writer, who is unfortunately on vacation this week, so it might be a few days before I get an answer.

Reply from a spokesman at NOAA:

“The 112 in the article are ELT distress alerts. The 132 that your reader wrote about is all rescue events for CY17. (PLB, EPIRB and ELT) The actual distress alert doesn't always mean that a SARSAT save occurred. We only attribute a save to when the first responder receives our data first and uses that data for the save. But that doesn't mean that the system wasn't accurate and working which is why we still count the functionality of the distress, even if it wasn't a save attributed to COSPAS-SARSAT. For example, if a cell phone call to local authorities while the plane is crashing alerts the authorities, then the ELT lights off after the crash…it does NOT count as a SARSAT save, even if the pilot is evacuated safely.

The 132 events indicate SARSAT save events with a total of 275 lives where SARSAT was the primary mode of rescue.”

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