They're sort of like guardian angels — 22,000 miles above the Earth.
The same weather satellites that track hurricanes also helped rescue more than 20 people on sinking or disabled boats in the vicinity of South Florida last year, according to a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"Each life we save underscores the undeniable value of NOAA satellites," said Mary Kicza, assistant administrator for NOAA's Satellite and Information Service.
In all, 253 people nationwide were saved from shipwrecks, downed planes or unfamiliar hiking trails after the satellites picked up distress signals from their locator beacons. Those signals were relayed to NOAA's satellite operations complex in Suitland, Md., which in turn, alerted a rescue coordination center.
In one of the most dramatic rescues, a 27-foot cuddy cabin boat started to take on water and soon sank while it was about 50 miles east of Delray Beach on July 1. That forced its six occupants, including a six-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy, to jump in a life raft. The boat's captain then activated his emergency locator beacon, sending a call for help to a satellite.
"We launched an air rescue H-65 helicopter from Miami to respond," said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma, adding that all six were pulled out of the water and taken to safety.
On Oct. 27, a 22-foot yellow catamaran onboard sank about 20 miles east of Miami, prompting its two occupants to send out an alert and wait on the ocean surface — using their lifejackets and seat cushions for flotation — until helped arrived. A Coast Guard helicopter spotted the two in the water, hoisted them aboard and flew them to shore.
Somma, a Coast Guard search and rescue helicopter pilot, said all of the troubled boaters were wise to equip their vessels with emergency locator beacons, which provide rescuers with an "exact fix."
"We see a lot of pleasure and recreational boaters who just don't want to spent the money on an emergency locator beacon, yet for the most part they're very affordable," he said. "For the about the cost of an iPad, it could save your life."
Charles Greenberg, a fishing captain based in Boca Raton, keeps three emergency locator beacons on his 35-foot Revenge LT boat, Crescendo — one hard-mounted on the vessel, one in his liferaft and a hand-held in his emergency kit.
He said he's never had an emergency yet, but once, one of his mates accidentally activated the beacon on his boat.
"The Coast Guard within 20 minutes had called my cellphone, my house phone and my emergency contact number," he said. "So they work."
Capt. Bouncer Smith, who operates a 33-foot fishing boat between Miami Beach and Bahamas, said, "I wouldn't leave dock without one. It's not how far from land you go, it's how far you from help that matters," he said.
Of those rescued last year, 56 people were in and around Florida, second only to Alaska's 101.
When they're not rescuing people, the satellites provide weather imagery to forecast offices around the nation — including tropical systems to the National Hurricane Center in Miami-Dade County. The images are critical to developing both hurricane track and intensity forecasts.
"It just goes to show the satellites have unique versatility," said NOAA spokesman John Leslie.
NOAA reminds owners of emergency transmitter beacons that, by law, they must register with the agency at beaconregistration.noaa.gov, as that will allow the agency to provide faster assistance in case of an emergency.
"Registering properly allows us to know what boat sent a signal," said Somma, of the Coast Guard. "I can't emphasize enough how effective the beacons are."
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