Snow and Avalanche Center 2020 Avalanche News

Survivor's plea: Register your emergency beacons

Avalanche Center Note: This is about emergency locator beacons, which should be registered, it is not about avalanche rescue beacons. The survivor discussed in the article was in an avalanche and used an emergency locator beacon to initiate her rescue after getting herself out of the snow.

Unregistered emergency beacons waste time and money for rescue services and could cost lives.

One of the small electronic devices saved the life of avalanche survivor Jo Morgan. "If I didn't have a beacon on me that day it would have been really unlikely that I would have been found for another few days," she says.

Morgan was climbing in the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park with two experienced guides when they were hit by an avalanche and buried beneath the snow. "You're in sort of a bit of a washing machine and I was trying to clear my mouth of snow and we would've come down about 200 or 300 metres," she says. "I was totally buried with just my face out and I called out to the others, and [got] no reply."

The two guides died, but Morgan - the wife of Gareth Morgan - survived by digging her way out and setting off her emergency locator beacon. Without it, she would also have died.

In 2019 there were 276 beacon alerts. Of these, 87 were real distress situations from registered beacons and 12 were from non-registered beacons. But there were 177 falsely-activated beacon alerts - 43 from non-registered beacons.

An unregistered beacon inadvertently or accidentally activated is a real headache for rescue teams. "An activated beacon is right up there with the things we need to respond to urgently so we go to these things," says Garden City Helicopter operations manager Stuart Farquhar. "That takes the resource of that rescue helicopter away from everything else it could be doing - so that's car accidents, farm accidents. We don't want to be going to false alarms. Besides the cost of it, it also takes that service away from everything else."

Registering your beacon is a legal requirement and it's free. It involves the owner entering contact details, details of registered vessels, aircraft or vehicles as well as nominated emergency contacts.

When a beacon is activated it transmits a signal to a satellite up to 30,000km away. The satellite does some fast triangulation then sends a signal back to a mission control centre for a search to be deployed.

"When you get a beacon you get it all registered and they have all the info about you so when you set it off they can look at it and say 'oh yeah that's Jo'," she says "Then they ring Gareth and say 'oh yeah not a false alarm' and then they come and get you."

New Zealand has one of the largest search and rescue regions in the world. And when not everyone registers their beacon it wastes time and potentially costs lives.

"In a normal course of events, [when] there is a beacon activation, we ring the owner of the beacon to understand what might be going on," says Mike Hill, manager of Maritime NZ's Rescue Coordination Centre NZ (RCCNZ). "If the beacon's unregistered we have no one to get in touch with to understand or start to triage the situation."

Search teams are deployed regardless of whether it's a false alarm or life-or-death situation. "Generally we will err on the side of caution," Hill says. "We would rather know that it's false than find out later that we should have gone out."

Last year, New Zealand search and rescue operations cost $27 million. The Rescue Coordination Centre spent $7 million of that taxpayers' money coordinating rescues, including rescue helicopters. "We're going out in some pretty high-tech helicopters - medical care, well-trained guys," Farquhar says. "All of this comes at a cost. We're looking at $6500 an hour... nobody wants to waste that sort of money so having a registered beacon saves a lot of money."

Hill says if people want to be rescued in a timely and effective manner he encourages them to get their beacon registered.

"It probably saved my life that day," Morgan adds.

A plea to register your beacon from someone who knows just how important it is.

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