Boaters adrift at sea, wayward hikers and stranded pilots take note: the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is taking steps to speed up rescues. As of next week, NOAA's COSPAS Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) system, perched high above Earth's atmosphere, will home in on digital (as opposed to analog) distress signals sent using a particular frequency, instead of wasting time trying to sort through an array of signals with the urgent ones potentially getting lost in the shuffle.

Digital distress signal transmitters using the 406 MHz frequency (which cost between $200 and $1,500 and are installed on aircraft and boats or are handheld) are more powerful and transmit a more accurate signal than their analog predecessors.

The COSPAS-SARSAT system, which the agency says played a key role in saving 283 lives in the U.S. last year, picks up aviation, maritime and individual distress signals from beacons (owners must register his or her transmitter with NOAA, which stores it in a federal database) and relays the information to the U.S. Air Force (which carries out land rescues) or the Coast Guard (which conducts rescues at sea). As of January 15, NOAA had assisted five rescues this year. In 2007, the agency lent assistance saving 353 lives.

Among the 2008 NOAA-assisted rescues: two boaters near Port Aransas, Tex., whose vessel broke down with waves as high as 12 feet (3.7 meters); an injured hiker who used his personal locator beacon in a remote area near Hemet, Calif. (mountain lions had been spotted nearby); and a pilot whose Cessna plane crashed into trees about 70 miles (112.7 kilometers) southeast of Galena, Alaska.

The federal government since 1973 has mandated all U.S. aircraft to carry an emergency locator beacon programmed to automatically activate after a crash and transmit a homing signal. This followed the 1972 disappearance of Rep. Nick Begich (D–Alaska), then House majority leader Rep. Hale Boggs (D–La.), and two others when their twin-engine Cessna 310 crashed in a remote region of Alaska but was never found. Although the beacons were originally monitored from the ground, the U.S., Canadian, French and Soviet governments in 1979 launched COSPAS-SARSAT to track these beacons via satellite and put NOAA in charge of running the system.

Images courtesy of NOAA