Dumped beacons waste time and money

Irresponsibly dumped distress beacons are wasting tens of thousands of dollars and risking lives, the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) says.

A spate of unnecessary SAR operations this year, sparked by signals sent from dumped beacons, has prompted RCCNZ to remind beacon owners that unwanted or obsolete beacons must be disposed of properly.

The battery needs to be disconnected and the beacon disposed of according to local regulations, as many beacons contain hazardous materials. Beacon owners should contact their local retailer, or the NZ Police, to arrange appropriate disposal of old or unwanted distress beacons.

More than 20 incidents of dumped beacons sparking searches have been identified since 2012 – eleven involving the use of rescue helicopters at a cost of around $3000 an hour. Already this year, dumped beacons have resulted in four searches, two involving rescue helicopters.

“Not only do these searches waste time and money – helicopters do not come cheap – but they have tied up resources that may have been required for an actual rescue or attendance at an accident site. That potentially puts lives at risk,” RCCNZ Deputy Manager Support Services Rodney Bracefield said.

A search doesn’t stop even if it appears a signal is coming from a dump site.

“We can’t take it for granted that a signal from an EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon) off a ship is a false alarm even if the signal is coming from a position on land. It could be that the owner has taken it ashore for whatever reason and is genuinely in distress.”

“Once a signal is identified, we can’t just leave it operating or it will be picked up every time a satellite is overhead – and that could have implications if another beacon is activated in the area. It really needs to be turned off and disposed of correctly.”

Activations this year from dumped beacons:

  • On 20 May 2015 a signal was received in Taranaki from an EPIRB off a Panamanian-flagged LPG carrier but the ship was located safe near Noumea. The ship’s agent in New Plymouth advised that the EPIRB had been taken off the ship several years ago and been stored at the agent’s premises until it was dumped. Radio inspectors from Radio Spectrum Management (part of the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment) went to the landfill site to locate the beacon but on arrival no beacon signals were detected. It is assumed the beacon was buried or the battery was flat.
  • On 21 April an alert was received for an unregistered New Zealand EPIRB located on farmland southwest of Taihape. The Palmerston North Rescue Helicopter was sent to the scene, with police and the land owner joining the search. The beacon was located in a small rubbish pile on a neighbouring property. The owner had recently purchased a new personal locator beacon (PLB) and simply thrown the unwanted EPIRB away.
  • On 7 January, an alert was received for a PLB in an industrial area in Wingate, Lower Hutt. It turned out the owner had three PLBs and was not sure which he had loaned and which he had sent for disposal. The Westpac Rescue helicopter was sent to the area and the PLB was eventually located on a bench in an electronics recycling building.
  • On 1 January, a signal from an EPIRB was identified in a landfill in Whangarei. The beacon was registered and when contacted the owner, a yachtsman, said he had thrown the apparently obsolete beacon into the rubbish as it appeared to be in a poor condition and very old. Two weeks later it self-activated. The landfill manager offered to open the landfill after hours to allow a search for the beacon, but it ceased transmitting within a few hours.

By law, all distress beacons must be registered. This provides emergency contact information and allows RCCNZ to quickly ascertain if a beacon alert is genuine or inadvertent.