Australian Maritime Safety Authority

AMSA Search and Rescue

24 Hour Emergency contact numbers

For 24 hour emergency contacts, see the Emergency contacts webpage.


Australia has a world renowned search and rescue service that spans the nation and covers 52.8 million square kilometres of the Indian, Pacific and Southern Oceans.

The search and rescue service is provided by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA Search and Rescue).

AMSA Search and Rescue - Australia

Operating 24 hours, AMSA Search and Rescue in Canberra is responsible for the national coordination of both maritime and aviation search and rescue. AMSA is also responsible for the management and operation of the Australian ground segment of the Cospas-Sarsat distress beacon detection system.

AMSA Search and Rescue is staffed by search and rescue (SAR) specialists who have a naval, merchant marine, air force, civil aviation or police service background. It also coordinates medical evacuations, broadcasts maritime safety information and operates the Modernised Australian Ship Tracking and Reporting System (MASTREP).

Search and Rescue Procedure

On receiving a distress signal or being notified of a missing civil aircraft or seagoing vessel, AMSA will take action to establish the safety of the aircraft, vessel or source of the signal. This action may include:

  • coordinating a search and rescue with assistance from organisations as appropriate, such as the Defence forces, trained aviation organisations (Civil SAR Units), emergency medical helicopters, state Police services, state emergency services, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), airlines, the general aviation industry, volunteer marine rescue groups, the Bureau of Meteorology, the shipping industry and fishing cooperatives.


  • passing coordination to the appropriate regional police organisation to conduct search and rescue operations within their jurisdiction.

Distress Alerts

Traditionally, Australia's SAR authorities have been alerted to emergency incidents through radio distress calls ('maydays'), flare sightings, calls from worried friends or relatives, or the more formal overdue ship/aircraft reports.

This in turn has usually required a painstaking evaluation of many variables such as aircraft endurance, terrain, weather in the area, wind, currents, survival gear carried, and of course, the skipper's experience and likely intentions. Naturally, these sorts of considerations remain very important whenever a search and rescue operation is being mounted.

Satellite System

Today's technology takes most of the 'search' out of search and rescue through the utilisation of satellites and modern radio distress beacons.

Aviators call their radio distress beacons ELTs (Emergency Locator Transmitters, mounted permanently in the aircraft) or PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons, which are portable and carried by a person).

Mariners call their beacons EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons). The main difference is an EPIRB, unlike an ELT, is designed to float in water with its antenna pointing upright.

Under the COSPAS-SARSAT international satellite aided tracking system, satellites can detect distress signals from radio beacons.

Signals from the satellites are detected and relayed back to AMSA Australia through ground receiver stations located at:

Accurate Detection

Radio distress beacons operate on 406 MHz with a 121.5 MHz transmission feature being used for final stage homing.

NOTE: After 1 Feb 2010, old analogue EPIRBs and PLBs operating on 121.5 MHz are no longer licenced for use.

The technology of distress beacons is so advanced that the location of the boat, aircraft or individual in distress can be calculated to a search area of as little as 110m with a digital 406 MHz beacon, if encoded with GPS.

A digital 406 MHz beacon can relay much more information than simply the distress location. When registered properly with AMSA, 406 MHz distress beacon can provide the AMSA with information such as the registration details of the aircraft, vessel or vehicle as well as emergency contact names and contact numbers. This may allow further information to be gathered relating to the type of craft, survival gear carried and the number of people on board etc. REGISTRATION IS FREE.

After defining the search area, aircraft or other rescue craft rely on homing equipment to locate the beacon's exact position.

It is important that once a beacon is switched on in a distress situation you should not switch it off until rescue has been affected or you are advised to by the rescue authority.

Which type of beacon?

There are 3 types:

  • Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB) used in ships and boats;

  • Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELT) used in aircraft; and

  • Personal Locator Beacons (PLB) for personal use by bushwalkers, four-wheel drivers, other adventurers on land, employees working in remote areas, and crew in boats and aircrew.

EPIRBs are designed to float in the water to optimize the signal to the satellite. An EPIRB is required to operate for a minimum of 48 hours continuously once activated. EPIRBs have a lanyard that is used to secure it to something that is not going to sink so that it can float free.

There have been a number of incidents where vessels have sunk quickly and crew have not been able to deploy an EPIRB. In such incidents. Float-free EPIRBs may have reduced response times and saved lives. Float-free EPIRBs are held in a bracket and fitted with a hydrostatic release that is water activated deploying the beacon automatically if the vessel sinks. If the vessel continues to float then the EPIRB can be manually deployed where a distress situation exists.

NOTE: Although Yachting Australia requires all crew in Category 1 and 2 ocean yacht races to carry a PLB when on deck, an EPIRB must also be carried in the yacht. Likewise, PLBs are not considered a substitute for EPIRBs when adhering to State and Territory marine regulations on the carriage of EPIRBs.

ELTs are usually fixed in the aircraft and designed to activate on impact. ELTs are required to operate continuously for 24 hours once activated. Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) regulations require most aircraft to carry an ELT. CASA regulations allow for PLBs or EPIRBs to be carried in General Aviation aircraft as an alternative to an ELT.

PLBs are designed for personal use in both the land and marine environment. These types of beacons are becoming a multi-environment beacon and are required to operate for a minimum of 24 hours once activated.

EPIRBs, PLBs and ELTs operate on two (2) frequencies - 406 MHz for primary alerting and 121.5 MHz for final stage homing. Because of the digital technology used in 406MHz beacons, they are far more capable than the out-moded analogue 121.5 MHz beacons.

406MHz beacons come in two basic types: those that provide an encoded (GPS) location and those that do not. The satellite system can calculate a beacon’s location, but locating a distress site is usually much faster if the beacon signal provides a GPS location.

All States and the Northern Territory require recreational sea craft to carry a distress beacon when operating beyond a certain distance from shore.

Additionally, specific categories of commercial and fishing vessels are sometimes legally required to carry 406 MHz beacons. For further details regarding requirements please contact your State or Territory boating authority.

Additional information on distress beacons can be found at the AMSA beacons website.


  • Where a beacon has been activated inadvertently, the most important thing to do is switch off the beacon and notify the AMSA as soon as possible by calling 1800 641 792 to ensure a search and rescue operation is not commenced. There is no penalty for inadvertent activations.
  • If this activation is discovered whilst at sea, the AMSA must be informed by the most rapid means of communication, either direct or via another station with passing instructions to urgently forward to the AMSA in Canberra.
  • Testing of EPIRBs should be done at regular intervals and in accordance with correct procedure. Batteries must also be kept current and should be replaced only by the beacon's manufacturer.

Safety equipment

While satellites and satellite-compatible distress beacons have significantly improved the effectiveness of SAR operations, the system is NOT a substitute for carrying appropriate marine or aviation radio.

Depending on the circumstances, your initial distress alert should still be made by radio if possible. You should activate your distress beacon only if contact cannot be made by any other means or when told to do so by a rescue authority.

Likewise, pilots and offshore mariners should never rely solely on any single safety or navigation system. They should always carry appropriate charts and safety equipment, be aware of changing weather, and operate within the limits of their own capability and the capability of their boat or aircraft.

Additional information about the Cospas-Sarsat international satellite system can be found on the Cospas-Sarsat website.

VHF marine radio for recreational boaters

Information on recreational VHF marine radio use including instructions on calling procedures, handbooks, stickers, educational videos, links to the Bureau of Meteorology and State/NT marine authorities, and information on the new VHF Marine Radio Certificate of Proficiency can be found at the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s website.

Silhouette II Rescue

At 4.17pm on Wednesday 13 February 2008 the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s (AMSA) Rescue Coordination Centre – Australia (RCC) received a telephone call from the brother-in-law of the skipper of the 43ft New Zealand registered catamaran, Silhouette II which was enroute from Brisbane to Wellington with four people on board.

Information received in the telephone conversation indicated that the vessel’s skipper had made a satellite telephone call to his brother-in-law indicating that the Silhouette II was sinking and the crew were abandoning to their liferaft. At this time, the skipper gave his position as approximately 140 nautical miles East of Byron Bay, New South Wales.

Read the Silhouette II rescue case study [pdf iconPDF: 616Kb] and see video 1 and video 2 of the rescue.

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