Search and rescue arrangements

AMSA provides a national aviation and maritime search and rescue coordination service for Australia through the AMSA Response Centre (ARC) which is based in Canberra. 

The ARC receives distress alerts and either: 

  • Coordinates the emergency response, calling on existing dedicated rescue assets or using assets of opportunity (for example, a commercial aircraft or merchant ship in the area); or 

  • Transfers coordination to the responsible search and rescue authority (for example, state police in the case of a missing hiker on land). 

AMSA’s search and rescue assets include four Bombardier Challenger 604 jets which are based in Perth, Melbourne and Cairns. 

AMSA’s search and rescue region covers the Australian continent and large areas of the Indian, Pacific and Southern Oceans as well as the Australian Antarctic Territories. 

The size of this area is nearly 53 million square kilometres or one tenth of the Earth’s surface. To put that into context – it’s about halfway to Africa, halfway to Indonesia, halfway to New Zealand and all the way to the South Pole. 

Australia’s search and rescue system is based on collaboration and cooperation between AMSA, state and territory police, and the Australian Defence Force. 

Many other organisations like volunteer marine rescue and coastguard branches, rescue helicopters and general aviation providers also form part of Australia’s vast search and rescue network. 

Most of the distress alerts that AMSA receives come in the form of distress beacon activations. There are three types of distress beacons: 

  • Emergency locator transmitters (ELTs); 

  • Personal locator beacons (PLBs); and 

  • Emergency position-indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs). 

ELTS are only used in aviation environments. PLBs are used across all outdoor settings from aviation to land and maritime. EPIRBs are typically only used in maritime environments. 

You can purchase GPS or non-GPS distress beacons. GPS beacons are best as they have an accuracy of within 120m, whereas non-GPS beacons only have an accuracy of about 5km. This can make a big difference in speeding up effective search and rescues. 

All distress beacons are registered for free with AMSA and it’s critical that owners maintain the currency of their beacon registration. This includes important information about the aircraft, vehicle or vessel that the beacon is associated with, what safety and survival equipment is onboard, who is onboard and any critical health-related information, and of course emergency contacts and trip details. 

All of this information is readily available to AMSA when it detects an activation of a distress beacon and it can play an important role in refining search and rescues. Once activated, a distress beacon’s signal is picked-up by constellations of satellites passing overhead and relayed through a series of ground stations around Australia to AMSA’s ARC in Canberra. From there, a search and rescue kicks-off usually within minutes.