All posts by ntsbgov

Personal Locator Beacons Improve the Chance of Rescue at Sea

By Morgan Turrell, Director of the Office of Marine Safety

New Year’s Eve is a time of celebration and remembrance. Three years ago, on December 31, 2019, as the new year was being rung in across the lower 48 states, a tragedy was playing out in icy Alaskan waters. The fishing vessel Scandies Rose, with seven crew members aboard, encountered severe icing conditions and high winds and waves as it transited from Kodiak to fishing grounds in the Bering Sea. The crabber tried to make it to Sutwik Island to shelter from the storm; however, because of the weight of the topside ice that had accumulated on the vessel and the force of the winds and waves, the Scandies Rose capsized and sank before reaching safety.

Two crewmembers managed to climb out of the capsized ship and swim to a life raft, where they were tossed about for 4 hours in 50‑mph freezing winds and 30-foot seas. Search-and-rescue (SAR) operations, hampered by the poor weather conditions and unsure of the survivors’ location, struggled to find them. Eventually, a Coast Guard helicopter rescued the two crewmembers, but the remaining five were never found.

Our investigation into this accident found that the Scandies Rose’s emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) failed to provide a position after crewmembers were forced to abandon the vessel. The crew was left without a means of communicating with SAR personnel, who, going off the EPIRB information, were searching in the wrong area. As a result of this situation, we reiterated a 2017 recommendation (M‑17-45) to require mariners to have personal locator beacons (PLBs). This recommendation asks the Coast Guard to require that all personnel employed on vessels in coastal, Great Lakes, and ocean service be provided with a PLB. Unfortunately, this recommendation is still open.

Rescue helicopter search area for Scandies Rose based off position passed in error. (Courtesy: Coast Guard)
Rescue helicopter search area for Scandies Rose based off position passed in error. (Courtesy: Coast Guard)

A PLB is a personal electronic device that transmits a survivor’s location on or in the water to the Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking system during an emergency. It’s designed to be carried in a person’s life vest (or elsewhere on their body) and manually activated when the wearer is in distress. PLBs continuously update a survivor’s location.

The Scandies Rose is one of several notable marine casualties the NTSB has investigated in the last 5 years involving mariners lost at sea in which PLBs could have made a difference. These casualties highlight the critical safety need for PLBs to aid in SAR operations at sea. We’ve been recommending that all mariners use PLBs since our investigation of the October 2015 sinking of the cargo ship El Faro, which sank in the Atlantic Ocean about 40 nautical miles northeast of Acklins and Crooked Island, Bahamas, after sailing directly into the path of Hurricane Joaquin. The entire crew of 33 aboard perished.

Three days after the El Faro’s sinking, searchers spotted the remains of one El Faro crewmember in an immersion suit. It’s unclear when the crewmember perished or if any other crewmembers were able to abandon ship; however, had that crewmember, or any others who were able to evacuate, been equipped with a PLB, searchers would have had the essential information to focus rescue efforts. We concluded then that equipping all people onboard a vessel with a PLB would enhance their chances of survival, and, in 2017, we issued safety recommendation M-17-45.

Since the sinking of the El Faro and the Scandies Rose, we have investigated two other marine tragedies that continue to highlight the need for PLBs.

  • On November 23, 2020, the Coast Guard received a distress signal about 27 miles from Provincetown, Massachusetts, from the EPIRB registered to the Emmy Rose, an 82-foot-long commercial fishing vessel with four crewmembers aboard. The Coast Guard recovered the EPIRB, but none of the crewmembers were located and are presumed dead. The investigation showed that if any crewmembers had been able to evacuate the vessel, they would have been able to survive up to 22.5 hours in the water with an immersion suit. It’s unlikely that the crew had PLBs; however, had they been able to activate a PLB after abandoning the vessel, SAR crews may have been able to find them.
  • On April 13, 2021, the liftboat SEACOR Power capsized off the coast of Port Fourchon, Louisiana, in a severe thunderstorm. Six crewmembers were rescued by the Coast Guard and Good Samaritan vessels, and the bodies of six other fatally injured crewmembers were recovered. Seven crewmembers were never found and are presumed dead. None of the survivors rescued had PLBs or similar satellite emergency notification devices (SENDs), which use commercial satellite systems, nor did they know of anyone else on board who did.

Other marine investigations we’ve conducted have shown how PLBs and SENDs, when voluntarily incorporated into marine operations, likely saved lives. For example, our investigation of the November 10, 2021, fire aboard the fishing vessel Blue Dragon found that SAR controllers were able to correlate location data from multiple emergency beacons. Similarly, our investigation of the July 23, 2016, sinking of the commercial fishing vessel Ambition found that use of the vessel’s SEND prompted an immediate response from the commercial response center when the Coast Guard did not receive the captain’s mayday call.

PLBs are now widely available, relatively inexpensive, and remarkably accurate. Models typically cost $300–$400, and most offer GPS location functionality that can provide SAR operations with a continuously updated location of each person to within 300 feet. PLBs can be equipped with an integrated automatic identification system (AIS) “Man Overboard” alert that, in addition to satellite GPS location, transmits AIS signals for local assistance from nearby vessels.

The NTSB has been advocating for PLBs for many years now. The Coast Guard should require them, but the marine industry doesn’t have to—and shouldn’t—wait for a Coast Guard requirement to make PLBs a common piece of safety equipment on commercial vessels.

This New Year, as we reflect on the third anniversary of the tragic Scandies Rose sinking, we ask mariners and marine operations to make it their new year’s resolution to invest in their crews’ safety by providing PLBs. Without a doubt, a PLB can avoid turning an unfortunate accident or incident into a tragedy on the seas.


For more information on our marine casualty investigations, visit our Office of Marine Safety investigative reports webpage. Also, check out these resources on PLB use from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Federal Communications Commission. Note that for any PLB, mariners should read the manufacturer’s instructions for specific guidance on use and register the device with NOAA prior to use.

Episode 53: Decatur, TN Crash Investigation

In a new episode of our Behind the Scene @NTSB podcast, we talk with Meg Sweeney, Project Manager and Shawn Currie, Motor Carrier Factors Investigator, both in the Office of Highway Safety, about the October 27, 2020, collision between a service truck and school bus in Decatur, Tennessee.

The NTSB final report for the investigation we discussed is available on our website.

To learn more about NTSB school bus-related crash investigations visit our School Bus Safety webpage.

To learn more about the Safe System Approach, recordings of each installment of the NTSB Safe System Approach Roundtable series are available on our YouTube channel.

For information about the NTSB Most Wanted List, visit our website.

Subscribe to the podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlayStitcher, or your favorite podcast platform.

And find more ways to listen here:

Prioritizing Safety This Holiday Travel Season

By Stephanie Shaw, Acting Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division

This week, families and friends will gather to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. According to estimates from AAA, nearly 55 million people will travel away from home this year, with about 49 million of them taking to the roads.

As we mark the beginning of the holiday travel season, we want to ensure that everyone arrives safely at their destinations. Unfortunately, travel on our roads can be the riskiest mode of travel during the holiday season.

NTSB investigations continue to highlight actions needed by regulators, legislators, and industry to ensure the safest transportation system for the traveling public. Our Most Wanted List (MWL) identifies specific transportation safety improvements needed across all modes. It includes five road safety improvements that address pervasive problems like speeding, alcohol and other drug impairment, and distraction. The MWL also calls for collision-avoidance and connected vehicle technologies and implementation of a Safe System Approach to better protect all road users.

At the NTSB, we believe that safety is a shared responsibility, so for the traveling public, we’ve highlighted some ways you can keep yourself and others safe, regardless of the travel mode you choose.

By Car

Impairment by alcohol and other drugs, unsafe speeds, fatigue, and distraction continue to play major roles in crashes. Here’s what you can do:

  • Designate a sober driver, or call a taxi, or ridesharing service if your holiday celebrations involve alcohol or other impairing drugs.
  • Follow safe speeds. In bad weather, safe speeds are often below the designated speed limit. Speeding increases the chance of being involved in a crash and intensifies the severity of crash injuries.
  • Make sure you’re well rested! A fatigued driver is just as dangerous as one impaired by alcohol or other drugs.
  • Avoid distractions. Don’t take or make calls or text while driving, even using a hands-free device. Set your navigation system before you start driving. If you’re traveling with others, ask them to navigate.
  • Make sure to use the correct safety restraint for child passengers, and be sure it’s installed correctly.
  • Ensure you and all your passengers are buckled up! In a crash, seat belts (and proper child restraints) are your best protection against death and serious injuries.

By Bus

The NTSB has made recommendations to improve motorcoach operations and vehicle crashworthiness, but travelers should know what to do in an emergency.

  • Pay attention to safety briefings and know where the nearest emergency exit is. If it’s a window or roof hatch, make sure you know how to use it.
  • Ask your driver to give you a safety briefing if you’re unsure of where the exits are or how to use them.
  • Use your seat belt when they’re available!

By Plane or Boat

These tips can help you and your loved ones in an emergency on planes or vessels.

  • Pay close attention to the safety briefing! Airline and marine accidents have become very rare, but you and your family can be safer by being prepared.
  • Know where to find the nearest emergency exit and flotation device whether you’re on an airplane or a boat.
  • Confirm that you and your traveling companions—even children under age 2—have your own seats and are buckled up when flying.
  • Don’t forget your child’s car seat. The label will usually tell you if your child car seat is certified for airplane use; the owner’s manual always has this information.
  • Call the airline and ask what the rules are for using a child’s car seat on your flight, if you don’t already know.
  • Follow crewmember instructions and remain calm in an emergency.

By Train

The NTSB has made recommendations to improve passenger rail operations and vehicle crashworthiness, but travelers should also follow these safety tips.

  • Stow carry-ons in the locations provided (overhead and racks). Don’t block aisles.
  • Review your trains safety information which may be provided as a safety card in your seat pocket or displayed in your railcar.
  • Follow crewmember instructions and remain calm in an emergency.

No matter how you travel, make a commitment to put safety first.

We wish everyone a safe and happy Thanksgiving.

Honor Traffic Victims with Action

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

50 million deaths. Hundreds of millions of injuries.

That’s the worldwide cost of traffic violence, in human terms. It’s difficult to comprehend fully, which is why the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims is so meaningful.

This annual observance provides a time to reflect on the real people behind the statistics: mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, colleagues, best friends, and neighbors.

It’s a time to support those who’ve lost a loved one to the public health crisis on our roads.

And it’s a time to act, starting with NTSB recommendations.

Lessons from Tragedy

Since last year’s World Day of Remembrance, the NTSB has made 26 new recommendations to improve road safety. All remain open.

Where did these recommendations come from? They are the result of rigorous NTSB investigations into devastating crashes, outlined below. Each one is a lesson from tragedy, which is why we don’t rest until a recommendation is implemented.

At the NTSB, we believe the most meaningful thing we can do for victims of traffic violence is to advocate for our safety recommendations.

In other words: we choose to honor the victims with action.

Here are just some of the victims we’re remembering today — along with the recommended safety improvements to best honor their memory. 

Today we remember two people who were killed and seven who were injured in a Belton, SC, crash between an SUV and a bus carrying disabled passengers. The actions we demand on their behalf include the following:

  • Ban nonemergency use of portable electronic devices, like cellphones, for all drivers.  
  • Recruit cellphone manufacturers in the fight against distracted driving; they should automatically disable distracting functions when a vehicle is in motion.
  • Provide annual safety training for people employed to transport wheelchair users.  
  • Develop a side-impact protection standard for new, medium-size buses, regardless of weight — and require compliance.

We should honor the victims of the Pennsylvania Turnpike crash that injured 50 people and killed five others — including a nine-year-old child — by taking the following actions:

  • Develop performance standards for advanced speed-limiting technology, connected-vehicle technology, and collision-avoidance systems — and require their use on new vehicles, as appropriate.
  • Require newly manufactured heavy vehicles to have onboard video event recorders.
  • Deploy connected-vehicle technology nationwide.
  • Take a comprehensive approach to eliminate speeding. Among other measures, this means thinking long and hard about the 85th percentile approach and using speed safety cameras, which includes working to remove restrictions against them. 

Here’s what we must do to honor the three people who were killed and the 18 who were injured when a bus overturned in Pala Mesa, California:

  • Require all new buses to meet a roof strength standard.
  • Sponsor research into safe tire tread depths for commercial vehicles.
  • Require seat belt use.

The best way to remember the victims of the Decatur, Tennessee, school bus crash that injured 14 people and killed two people, including a 7-year-old child, is to take the following steps:

  • Make lap-shoulder belts mandatory in new school buses.
  • Require lane-departure prevention systems on heavy vehicles.

And what about the nine people who died in a head-on crash in Avenal, California, on New Year’s Day — seven of whom were children? We must implement the following NTSB recommendations in their memory:

  • Require alcohol-detection systems in all new vehicles to prevent alcohol-impaired driving.
  • Encourage vehicle manufacturers to combat alcohol-impaired driving by accelerating progress on advanced impaired driving prevention technology and finding new ways to use existing technology, like driver monitoring systems.
  • Incentivize vehicle manufacturers and consumers to adopt intelligent speed adaptation (ISA) systems. One way to achieve this is to include ISA in the New Car Assessment Program. Notably, ISA became mandatory in July 2022 for all new models of vehicles introduced in the European Union.
  • Develop a common standard of practice for drug toxicology testing by state officials.

Remember. Support. Act.

Even as we advocate for our safety recommendations, more crashes are occurring daily — which means more investigations. The work continues.

And yet, we cannot let the magnitude of the road safety crisis deter us.

We must keep fighting for zero, which is only possible through a Safe System Approach

We must fight for road users around the world who deserve to be safe.

We must fight for those whose lives are forever changed by traffic violence.

We must fight for those who are no longer here to fight for themselves.

For all these people and more, the NTSB will keep fighting. And so will I.

Episode 52: Drowsy Driving Prevention Week

This week is Drowsy Driving Prevention Week. In a new episode of our Behind-the-Scene @NTSB podcast, we talk with Safety Recommendations Division Chief Jeff Marcus, Human Performance Investigator Dennis Collins, and National Resource Specialist Jana Price, Ph.D., about fatigue and NTSB fatigue-related crash investigations. They also discuss NTSB safety recommendations aimed at mitigating fatigue risk across transportation modes and the actions still needed to address the pervasive problem of drowsy driving.

Subscribe to the podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlayStitcher, or your favorite podcast platform.

And find more ways to listen here: