NOAA satellites helped save 272 people from potentially life-jeopardizing emergencies throughout the United States and its surrounding waters in 2006 — up from 222 the previous year. This is the highest number of rescues since 1999, when 294 people were rescued. NOAA’s polar-orbiting and geostationary satellites, along with Russia’s Cospas spacecraft, make up the powerful international Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking System, called COSPAS-SARSAT.

The system uses a constellation of satellites to detect and locate distress signals from emergency beacons onboard aircraft, boats and from hand-held personal locator beacons. Once the satellites pinpoint the location of the distress within the United States or surrounding waters, the information is relayed to NOAA at the SARSAT Mission Control Center in Suitland, Md., and sent to a Rescue Coordination Center, operated by either the U.S. Air Force (for land rescues), or U.S. Coast Guard (for water rescues.)

“We’re seeing the SARSAT program do exactly what it was intended to do — save lives. This is another great example of Earth observation technologies providing life-saving societal benefit,” said retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Ph.D, undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “NOAA satellites and the quick responses of the U.S. Air Force and Coast Guard continue to be the difference between life and death.”

Since its creation in 1982, COSPAS-SARSAT has been credited with more than 20,300 rescues worldwide, and 5,396 within the United States and its surrounding waters. Most of the rescues each year happen at sea. The top states with the most rescues in 2006 were: Alaska, with 75 rescues in 29 events (including two dogs); Florida, with 50 rescues in 18 events (including two dogs); Hawaii, with 16 rescues in five events, and Texas had 11 rescues in six events. Since the Personal Locator Beacon program became operational nationwide in July 2003, there have been 125 rescues credited to the hand-held devices.

“If you, or your family, are ever in a position to need an emergency beacon, it’s imperative for responders that it be registered with NOAA,” said Mary E. Kicza, assistant administrator for the NOAA Satellite and Information Service.

Older emergency beacons, which operate on the 121.5 and 243 megahertz frequencies, will be phased out by early 2009, when 406 megahertz beacons will become the new standard. The distress signals from 406 megahertz beacons, which use Global Positioning System technology, can be instantly detected and lead to faster rescues.

Notable SARSAT Rescue Activity

Within a five day stretch in November, 18 people — and one dog — were rescued in nine separate maneuvers from Florida to Alaska. From November 3 – 7, three crewmen were rescued from a boat caught in rough surf near Kodiak, Alaska, and in Barrow, another person was rescued after being stranded. Meanwhile, two boaters were pulled to safety off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass.; one crewman was saved from a troubled vessel more than 1,000 miles east of Long Island, N.Y.; another two boaters were rescued off the coast of Hilton Head Island, S.C.; two people were rescued from a sinking boat near Ponce Inlet, N.C.; two passengers were picked up from the site of a plane crash near Tulsa, Okla.; one person was saved from a capsized boat 1,200 miles northeast of Bermuda, and four people and a dog were rescued from a sinking boat near Tampa.

NOAA, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, is celebrating 200 years of science and service to the nation. From the establishment of the Survey of the Coast in 1807 by Thomas Jefferson to the formation of the Weather Bureau and the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries in the 1870s, much of America’s scientific heritage is rooted in NOAA. NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and information service delivery for transportation, and by providing environmental stewardship of the nation’s coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners, more than 60 countries and the European Commission to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts and protects.

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NOAA Satellites