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Does Summer Fun Mean More SARSAT Rescues? We Crunched the Numbers

23 Aug 2017, 1:58 pm

Summer fun continues for many folks around the country. For many of us, that means summer vacations, and, in general, more time spent outdoors. With nicer weather and more people engaged in outdoor recreation, will the SARSAT (Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking) system in the United States and surrounding regions receive more calls for help?


According to its website, the Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) system, which uses NOAA satellites in low-earth and geostationary orbits to detect and locate aviators, mariners, and land-based users in distress, rescued 143 people between January 1 and July 13 of this year. Now that summer is here and, presumably, more boats are on the water, more hikers have walked into the woods, and more recreational pilots have taken off into the wild blue yonder, is a summer-spike in rescues likely?

To find out, data was collected from previous years and crunched the numbers:

Sarsat rescues by month
Figure 1: The number of people rescued by SARSAT by season between 2011 and 2016.

As seen in the figure 1 (above), the number of people rescued by SARSAT between 2011 and 2016 rises and falls throughout the year. (Note: the spike in the number of people rescued in July 2016 pertains to one incident in which 46 people were rescued from a single distressed fishing vessel in the Bering Sea on July 26.) This means that the men and woman of the SARSAT program who respond to distress calls at NOAA’s Satellite Operations Facility, as well as the first responders dispatched to the call, are busy regardless of season.

Sarsat rescues by year
Figure 2: The number of people rescued by SARSAT between 2011 and 2016.

The data also show that SARSAT personnel and first responders are consistently busy from year-to-year (see figure 2 at right). Between 2011 and 2016, SARSAT rescued 273 people a year on average.

An Integral Part of Worldwide Search and Rescue

No matter when a call comes in, if a plane crashes, a boat sails into trouble or a hiker gets injured, help is just a call away thanks to 406 MHz distress beacons and an international satellite constellation that includes NOAA satellites.

NOAA’s Polar-Orbiting spacecraft – NOAA 15, 18, and 19 – carry instruments designed to detect distress signals from users in difficulty and relay them to search and rescue centers, which then notify the appropriate rescue organization. Polar-orbiting spacecraft operated by NOAA’s international partners, such as EUMETSAT’s Metop-A and -B, provide this service as well. Similarly, NOAA’s geostationary satellites—GOES 13, 14 and 15—carry the Geostationary Search and Rescue instruments, which provide the same function.

Relaying Signals, Saving Lives

Downed Plane in the snow

On April 2, 2017, a small General Aviation aircraft crashed in an isolated part of the Olympic Mountains in Washington State. A distress signal from the plane’s emergency beacon was detected by GOES West and the new Mid-Earth Orbiting Search and Rescue (MEOSAR) satellite constellation, which then relayed the signal to the NOAA-operated SARSAT control center in Suitland, Maryland. The control center then notified the United States Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. Within minutes, the AFRCC dispatched a U.S. Navy Helicopter Rescue team from Whidbey Island in Washington State, as well as members of Washington Air Search and Rescue to the crash site. The combination of data about the plane’s location from the 406MHz signal, as well as the homing capability of the emergency beacon, allowed rescue teams to pin point the plane’s location and perform a rescue on the side of the snow-covered Jupiter Mountain. Happily, the pilot and passenger survived the crash.

Rescues like this one not only highlight the team work among NOAA, the United States Air Force, the United States Navy, state agencies, and search and rescue organizations, but also the life-saving capabilities of 406MHz beacons, which, when properly registered, help first responders take the “search” out of search and rescue.

To see an interactive map of SARSAT Rescues in the United States and nearby regions, go to NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service website.

To learn more about 406MHz beacons, including how to purchase and activate them, visit NOAA’s SARSAT website.


For WeatherNation: Meteorologist Mace Michaels

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