Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs)

This guidance is for operators of commercial vessels in New Zealand who use an Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) that operates on the 406 MHz frequency. In particular, it highlights the difference between ‘float-free’ and ‘floating’ EPIRBs, and the importance of correctly installing the EPIRB.

In an emergency at sea, it is critical to have a distress beacon that will alert rescue services to your location. An EPIRB is the most suitable type of distress beacon for users of boats, ships and other water craft to request urgent assistance.

Requirements under Maritime Rules

Depending on the classification of your vessel, Maritime Rules may require it to carry an EPIRB. For example, under Maritime Rule 40D.6(a)(iv), fishing boats more than 7.5 metres and less than 24 metres in length that operate outside of enclosed waters must install a float-free EPIRB. Class 3 EPIRBs that operate on the 406MHz frequency must comply with Maritime Rules 43.18A and 43.19.

Read the Maritime Rules in the 40 series here

Register your EPIRB

All EPIRBs must be registered. Go to beacons.org.nz to register your EPIRB for free with the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) or to update your details.

Types of EPIRBs

Some EPIRBs need a person to switch them on (manual), while other EPIRBs may be automatic and manual.

Manual EPIRB

A manual EPIRB (non-float-free) sits inside a bracket installed on the vessel. The bracket must be kept in a readily accessible position on board the vessel. In an emergency, a person removes the EPIRB from its bracket, switches it on, and takes it with them if they abandon the vessel.

Float-free EPIRB

A float-free EPIRB can switch on automatically or be switched on manually.

Automatic activation

A float-free EPIRB comes with a bracket (or ‘case’ or ‘housing’) that has a hydrostatic release unit (HRU). The EPIRB sits in this bracket.

The HRU automatically releases the EPIRB when it has sunk to a certain depth. The depth depends on the brand or model of the EPIRB but it can be up to four metres.

Once automatically released, the EPIRB floats to the surface and automatically switches itself on.

Installing a float-free EPIRB

A float-free EPIRB is designed to be fitted into a float-free bracket on the vessel.

Install the bracket in an open space where the EPIRB will not be blocked from floating freely to the surface when used in its automatic mode.

If you need help installing a float-free EPIRB and bracket, contact your local maritime officer or recognised surveyor:

Contact a maritime officer

Contact a recognised surveyor

What else you should know

  • The HRU will not release the EPIRB until it is at a certain depth.
  • The type of EPIRB you have – float-free or manual – and how to activate it in an emergency.
  • How to install, operate, test and maintain your EPIRB correctly. Always read the instructions that come with your EPIRB.
  • EPIRBs purchased outside of New Zealand may not comply with Maritime Rules or be correctly coded for registration in New Zealand.
  • You must inform the Director of Maritime New Zealand in writing if you dispose of a 406 MHz EPIRB.

Maritime NZ recommends you choose a float-free EPIRB equipped with GPS to enable you to be found as quickly as possible in an emergency. If your EPIRB does not have GPS, it can take much longer for rescue services to find you.

Clarifying some terms used to describe EPIRBs

Maritime NZ has had feedback that some people find the following terms confusing when used to describe how an EPIRB works.

‘Floating’ and ‘float-free’

EPIRBs required by the Maritime Rules must be watertight and capable of floating when put in water. However, this does not mean the EPIRB is a ‘float-free EPIRB’.

‘Float-free’ refers to the bracket the EPIRB sits in, not the EPIRB itself. See ‘Float-free EPIRB’ above for more information

‘Released’ and ‘activated’

‘Released’ means the EPIRB is removed from its bracket (manually or automatically). Sometimes the word ‘deployed’ is used instead of ‘released’.

‘Activated’ means the EPIRB is switched on.

How EPIRBs send an alert to rescue services

Once switched on (activated), an EPIRB transmits a signal which will be picked up by satellites within the international COSPAS-SARSAT search and rescue satellite system. Satellites receive signals sent on the 406 MHz frequency, the standard international frequency for distress beacons.

The satellite retransmits the signal to the nearest ground receiving station (Local User Terminal) which then sends the signal to the closest MCC (Mission Control Centre).

The MCC analyses the signal and sends it to the responsible RCC. In New Zealand’s search and rescue region, this is the RCCNZ based in Lower Hutt. When they receive a signal, the RCCNZ begins a search and rescue response.


Contact us

If you have any questions about the new float-free EPIRB requirements, talk to our operator certification team.

+64 4 473 0111


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