Are App-Based Alarms Reliable for Man-Overboard Rescue?
Fall overboard (FOB) occurrences are much more common than we would like to believe. A simple trip on the deck or dock, excessive speed, or even a storm can cause people to fall off the boat. The problem is that within seconds, the fall overboard victim can drift at least 100 feet from the boat, making it difficult to find the person who fell overboard. It is critical to wear a PFD, but just as important is to invest in an alarm to notify the boat and crew of the man-overboard for immediate rescue. This testimonial highlights how fast a fall overboard can happen.
As the reliance on our smartphones continues to increase, so does the usage of apps as utilities and even man-overboard alarms. Over the last 3 years, several apps have been created to serve as man-overboard alarms. These apps rely on Bluetooth technology to notify the app of a loss signal i.e. man-overboard and trigger an alarm on the phone. I decided to do a little research to better understand the reliability of these apps as a man-overboard alarm. I summarized my learnings below. Although an app can appear cheap and easy to use, there are a lot of variables to manage – fully charged phone battery, open application, phone/tablet readily available, reliable Bluetooth connection, and more. In conclusion, when it comes to boat safety and preventing needless man-overboard injuries and fatalities, it is worth it to invest in an alarm system that you can set and forget.
Connection Reliability and False Alarms
These app-based systems trigger an alarm when the beacons or devices worn by the person lose connection with the phone app. This connection is relying on Bluetooth. Unfortunately, Bluetooth on a good day has a range of about 150 feet and can be much less on a phone. This reliability on Bluetooth on a boat has resulted in triggering many false alarms. The person wearing the beacon may just be going down to the galley of the boat, lose Bluetooth connection, and then the app triggers the man-overboard alarm. These false alarm triggers can become exhausting to manage and even result in losing trust in the application, never knowing if the alarm is indicating a real man-overboard situation or just another false alarm. When it comes to investing in a man-overboard alarm, it is critical to have a system in place that you can trust the connection, signal, and viability of the alert to be able to respond immediately.
Charged Phone or Tablet Battery and Battery Consumption
Reliance on an app also means that you are reliant on your phone or tablet. Unfortunately, this means that your phone needs to be fully charged, readily available, and most likely connected to power as the Bluetooth will quickly drain battery life on the device. The reality is that most people don’t have a fully charged device on hand. If the device is charged, it will not stay charged for long, in which case it needs to be connected to a power source and therefore not as readily available in case of a fall overboard emergency.
Software and Hardware Compatibility
Most of these app-based systems require your smartphone or tablet to have Bluetooth 4.0 or higher. They also have hardware requirements i.e. iPhone/iPad 5 or later. Hardware and software systems are constantly evolving, which may require investments in hardware and software on a more regular basis to ensure that the app can be used.
Phone or Tablet Location and Availability
The reliance on the app’s device may require a dedicated tablet or phone just for this app-based man-overboard alarm system. We are used to living with our phones tethered to our bodies – in our pockets, hands, and sometimes we even forget where we leave them. This app will not be effective if it is in the man overboard’s pocket or somewhere else on the boat that is not easily accessible.
Alarm System Setup and Pairing Devices to the App
As easy as it can be to download an app to a tablet or smartphone, it can still be challenging to pair the man-overboard beacons to the app. Some of the forums that I came across indicated that it was sometimes very challenging to pair the beacons to the app.
When it comes to man-overboard safety, it is critical to know that the connection between the transmitter or beacon and the receiver or app is reliable and constant. When it comes to setting up any system, ease-of-setup is essential and the ALERT Transmitter and Receiver are created to automatically connect and maintain that connection at all times.
When it comes to an actual fall overboard situation, it is critical that the alarm immediately alerts the crew and that there is a way to locate the man-overboard person. Some of these apps can take 5-10 seconds to sound the alarm after losing connection. In a man-overboard situation, every second counts. By 10 seconds a person may already have drifted 100 yards. Click here for an article about the activity of a fall overboard situation within the first minute.
There is a high likelihood that someone could fall overboard when it is dark or there is low lighting. Ideally, there is lighting on the man-overboard device to help find the person who fell overboard. It is best to have a device that has a strong light on it to help identify the person in the water. Some app-based systems don’t have LED lights on the units attached to the person involuntarily in the water. This could mean the difference between life and death.
There is a lot of confusion in the marketplace for effective fall overboard alerting. Emerald Marine Products has compiled both a presentation and an article to hopefully clarify the strengths and weaknesses of the products and technology acting as fall overboard alarms. Emerald Marine Products specializes in products specific to fall overboard situations. Alerting, training, retrieval, and recovery – the complete package to put you and your crew at ease when concerned about someone involuntarily entering the water.
Learn more about Emerald Marine Products’ set it and forget it man-overboard alarm system. For additional information about preventing fall overboard occurrences, check out Key Learnings from the American Waterways Operator’s committee panel discussion.