Emergency Communication Devices

Understanding communication procedures is an essential element of responding to emergencies. In this age of ever-changing technology there is no shortage of ways to get your message across. But when you’re out on the water, what’s the best device to maintain your lifeline to shore?

Today’s boaters are faced with many choices for ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications. VHFs, cell phones, Family Radio Service radios, CB radios, Single Sidebands (SSB), and satellite communications are among the myriad choices available.

Having a cell phone on board allows you to keep in touch with land-based people and businesses easily. They are very convenient but should not be relied upon as the primary means of communication.

  • Cell phones, although very convenient on land, are less reliable on the water. Most are not water resistant, and their range is relatively small.
  • Range is further complicated by the fact that the majority of cell antenna/stations are placed with land-based use in mind, so the distance offshore that a vessel can remain in contact is frequently much smaller than VHF radios.
  • Your communication power with a cell phone is limited on the water because you can only contact one other phone at a time. In contrast, VHF radios broadcast to all radios in the area at the same time.

VHF Radio

Very High Frequency (VHF) radios have been around for many years and remain the primary means of communication for vessels throughout the United States. The main uses of a VHF radio are:

  • Distress calling and safety
  • Hailing for on-water assistance such as a tow vessel
  • Contacting marinas for information and services
  • Navigating through locks and drawbridges
  • Receiving NOAA Weather Broadcasts
  • Communicating with commercial and recreational vessels

When you’re stuck in a jam, whether from engine failure or a fierce storm approaching, a VHF radio can be your lifeline to the world. In Coast Guard jurisdictions, VHFs are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For extra assurance, the USCG and most TowBoatUS towers can locate your boat by tracking your VHF signal.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates marine radio traffic and dictates that all other uses are secondary to safety, so chatting is strongly discouraged by the FCC and forbidden on Channels 16 and 9.

VHF radios come in many shapes, sizes and colors to meet anyone’s needs today. Prices start at about $100 for a basic model and can go higher as you add more features.

Most VHF radios on the market today have in excess of twenty-five usable channels. Aside from the U.S. channels there are also International and Canadian channels, all of which come standard with many of the newer units on the market.

The most important channels on your VHF radio are 13, 16, 19, 22, and 70. Channel 13 is used by commercial shipping to communicate their actions and confirm passage. Channel 16 is designated by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) as the national distress, safety and calling frequency.

All vessels must monitor this channel while underway. Calls to other vessels are normally initiated on channel 16 except for recreational vessels which may use channel 09. The FCC has designated channel 09 as a recreational calling channel in order to eliminate congestion on channel 16.

However, it is important to take note that the United States Coast Guard does not monitor channel 09 for distress calls. Any vessel in distress should use channel 16 (which the Coast Guard does monitor). Channel 22 is the most common working channel for USCG in the event of an emergency.

Always remember to check locally for channels authorized for use in your area as well as any local restrictions.

Emergency Calls

In emergency situations there are certain procedures to follow to ensure a prompt response. There are three phrases that you might hear on a VHF radio and they all relate to safety:

  • MAYDAY – distress signal, requires the most urgent response. This signal is only to be used when a person or boat is threatened by grave or imminent danger and requires assistance.
  • PAN-PAN – (pahn-pahn) used to signal urgent information like man overboard or a boat is drifting towards a hazard. If your emergency isn’t immediately life threatening say Pan-Pan instead of Mayday. An example would be if you have a controllable leak and you want help standing by in case it gets worse.
  • SECURITE – (se-cure-ih-tay) the safety signal, is used to transmit information about the safety of navigation. For instance, if a large commercial vessel is coming through a narrow channel this signal would be used. It can also be used to transmit weather information, such as when a storm system is approaching.

Should you need to make a distress call:

  • turn your VHF to Channel 16
  • press the transmit button on the mic
  • say one of the three phrases three times, along with position and situation information.


Digital Selective Calling, or DSC, is the equivalent of a “mayday button” on a VHF or SSB. When activated, it automatically broadcasts an encoded distress call that will be picked up by all nearby vessels equipped with DSC. If the radio is interfaced with a GPS unit, it will also automatically broadcast the distressed vessel’s position.

All fixed-mount radios and many handheld units now include DSC as a feature. To use DSC, you must obtain a MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) number. You can get an MMSI from a few places online, including United States Power Squadrons, Inc. at https://www.usps.org/php/mmsi_new/

The following steps will help to set up your MMSI:

  • Obtain and program MMSI number into the unit, if applicable
  • Ensure properly installed antennas
  • Wire to GPS, if applicable: See Interconnection to a GPS Receiver on the USCG Navigation Center (https://www.navcen.uscg.gov/)
  • Perform a radio check

To see how DSC works, visit https://www.dco.uscg.mil/Portals/9/CG-5R/SARfactsInfo/DSCpamphlet.pdf



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