- Windy Hilltops - http://www.windy.gen.nz -

PLBs and Media

Lately there’s been an obvious promotional push from Police, the RCCNZ and SAR officials to tell people to carry PLBs (Personal Locator Beacon) when they visit the outdoors. This makes sense as a progressive way to be able to indicate distress, but I’ve found it interesting to watch how the message is injected into the media machine.

It’s now standard, in a New Zealand media article about a back-country search and/or rescue, to see a comment about whether or not a person is believed to be carrying an emergency beacon. For better or worse, those who aren’t are often criticised as if they should be. The latest story to be pushed into the press is this one [1], repeated in several media outlets, which uses a recent incident in Milford Sound as an excuse to advise everyone to carry beacons. Browsing the comment thread under the above-linked article, the initially expressed public opinions mostly seem to be one-dimensional about how great and useful beacons are and how people are idiots not to carry them. Until the second wave of responding comments from readers, there was no acknowledgement that a PLB is effectively an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff which transmits no message except “fly a helicopter here to find out what my problem is”.

Then there are editorials like this one, from the Nelson Mail [2], where the editor takes the bait of all those press releases and interviewee comments regarding PLBs over the past year or two, and criticises a presently missing tramper for not carrying a PLB, and then tries to use it as partial justification for charging for rescue. I won’t get into the arguments against SAR charging here and now, except to comment that there are many arguments against it and I completely disagree with the idea.

I definitely agree with the message that carrying a PLB, or some other kind of emergency communications device, is a good idea. It’s an especially a good idea for consideration by people out by themselves, for people visiting remote locations, and for people intending to be in the hills for a lengthy period of time. That said, the message also often seems simplified to the extent that it loses some context. I’d hate for people to be discouraged from visiting the outdoors because they don’t have a PLB, either because it’s too expensive (roughly $600) or because it’s inconvenient to hire one.

Carrying a PLB is a useful thing, but it’s not a silver bullet. For me, still doesn’t trump the basic standard advice for decades. ie. Things like having a plan for where you’re going prior to leaving home, sticking to that plan, telling a trustworthy person all the relevant information before you leave, taking portable shelter and food so that if something happens then you can wait long enough for help to arrive, remaining in your own comfort zone, and only attempting risky things for which you have necessary skills.

If all of the above has already been done, a PLB will likely result in a faster rescue, but it often won’t make a difference between life or death. If you have a problem that requires emergency attention, such as a head injury, then a PLB may make a critical difference, as long as someone’s present who’s alive and conscious and able to press the button. A PLB will probably also result in a less expensive rescue for emergency services, keeping in mind all the money being privately spent on PLBs that may never be used, although sticking to a pre-provided plan also helps a lot with minimising search costs.

The context that’s missing in the simplified “always carry a PLB” message is provided much more usefully by the Adventure Smart website [3], which is also clearly being pushed by various SAR-related media releases. That website has more complete and useful guides of how to plan properly, and references useful comparisons between PLBs and their alternatives. Such a complex message, however, is by no means as simple as the dumbed-down “always carry a PLB” being subconsciously transmitted in all directions.

PLBs are making their way into people’s standard equipment, whether many of those people understand how to use them or not. This is probably a good thing but it also results in stories such as this one [4] in which people were criticised for activating their PLB because they were “tired”, or this one [5] regarding an ironic dilemma in a situation which probably have solved itself if a PLB hadn’t been available. Somehow this type of story reaches the media and tends to antagonise readers further, often citing costs of needless callouts.

Mis-use of PLBs seems a consequence of the policy to promote use of PLBs far and wide by as many people as possible, even those who might not clearly understand what an emergency is, and if that wasn’t budgeted for when planning the public relations strategy then it should have been. When it occurs, however, it should really be taken in the context of overall costs being lessened through the higher use of PLBs everywhere. Hopefully the publicity won’t result in anything irrational happening.

35 Comments (Open | Close)

35 Comments To "PLBs and Media"

#1 Comment By Gazza On 31 December, 2012 @ 12:55 pm

I agree with pretty much every point you have made. A beacon is a great tool to have (if you can afford it) but its not a get out of jail free card and shouldn’t be used as a subsitutue for good planning.

It won’t help you if you misjudge your route and fall off a 200 meter cliff, because you won’t get a chance to activate it. It may not help you if you don’t pay attention to the weather and get caught in a blizzard because even if you activate it the rescuers may not be able to get to you until the weather clears and you are frozen solid.

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 31 December, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

Hi @Gazza. Thanks, and all true in my opinion.

On a tangent, I should expand on what I wrote. I certainly don’t want to undermine the message being pushed, but I also find it interesting to watch how it’s been injected in such a simplified form and a very short, simple message like “take an emergency beacon”, but without much context, is becoming a standard part of people’s thoughts even moreso than “take emergency shelter”.or in some cases “tell someone where you’re going”. EPIRBs are saving lives, but sometimes I wonder how many of those lives would also be fine if people were taking other steps that they should sort-of been taking anyway.

EPIRBs are great and result in lives being saved that might otherwise have been lost, and can get help to people who need it very quickly to resolve situations faster. They’re also a very simple communications device. Pushing EPIRBs into the hands of nearly everyone (which seems to be the intent), it also pushes the responsibility of deciding if an emergency rescue is required into the hands of people who often aren’t equipped or experienced for making that decision. If [12] had been using an EPIRB instead of a hut radio, they simply would have been collected instead of having SAR officials tell them to harden up.

Somewhere, someone’s decided that it’s a good thing to encourage as many people as possible to carry EPIRBs, probably as a good economics decision after balancing good versus bad. Maybe it’s because carrying an EPIRB just happens to be the simplest thing to get people to do, even though a guaranteed certain percentage of users, especially the less experienced, won’t understand their proper use. There’s really no way to assert such a policy, though without accepting that there will be unnecessary callouts. I just hope that extra publicity about unnecessary rescues doesn’t make armchair critics too mad when there’s probably a lot of money being saved overall.

#3 Comment By Gazza On 31 December, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

All true, and I hadn’t actually considered that beacons put the decision to send help into the hands of those that might not be the best equipped to judge if its needed or not.

Recently a new SAR documentary show has been playing on TV one on Monday nights, its been quite interesting to watch (if a little sad) and see how the use of beacons has been playing out or not. In one case a tramper had a beacon but it was never activated due to a nasty fall. In another case a person took a nasty fall and survived intially but died before help could get to him as it took 11 hours for members of his party to be able to get out and raise the alarm (a situation where a beacon might have saved his life).

Its an interesting show.

#4 Comment By Mike McGavin On 31 December, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

Hi @Gazza. Yes I know of it, but being stuck in Melbourne for most of my time right now I’ve still only seen a few snippets. (TVNZ geofences most of their web-casting.) From what I’ve seen it looks like interesting stuff—quite touching seeing things like the medics still treating and speaking to the deceased as if they’re still alive. That situation you’ve described definitely sounds like one of the sorts of cases when an EPIRB could potentially make a clear difference for saving lives compared with the more traditional precautions. I’m planning to leap on any opportunity I get to see it properly in future, maybe on DVD if no channel over here picks it up.

Something that was pointed out about that show by a (former) SAR volunteer I know, from Rotorua, is that it probably isn’t the type of thing to champion the other types of activity that LandSAR volunteers get into. The example he gave was when LandSAR volunteers in that area recently spent three days helping to trawl through a landfill searching for evidence for a murder investigation. Ultimately entertainment’s still a higher priority than documentary these days, I guess, but the publicity’s still cool. 🙂

#5 Comment By Mike McGavin On 5 January, 2013 @ 10:51 am

Consistent with the theme of this post, Maritime NZ has just put out a press release [13].

Awesome, but from their text it seems their first example demonstrates how an EPIRB helped to save three people (granted with frostbite/hypothermia/probably-needing-rescue-by-that-time) who apparently weren’t prepared for a river to be in flood!

#6 Comment By Mike McGavin On 5 January, 2013 @ 12:04 pm

They were apparently [14].

#7 Comment By Wayne Clark On 7 January, 2013 @ 6:14 pm

its not even a case of being guaranteed a helicopter, the beacon will notify a persons location for about 24 hours before it goes dead,,, an idiot will move after setting off the beacon, if a search and rescue helicopter or ground team can’t reach the person who sets the beacon off before it goes dead, then it’s of limited use to have a beacon, all you know is there is an issue but you no longer know where the victim is…. and the weather can remain so bad that the victim cannot be rescued for possibly days

#8 Comment By Mike McGavin On 7 January, 2013 @ 9:02 pm

[15]. It’s believed a group were lost in the bush overnight and activated an EPIRB, but then returned to the nearby hut this morning. A helicopter couldn’t get there at the time (clouded in). It’s unclear if the helicopter went out to check this morning, but they seem satisfied enough that the group made their way back to safety some time after they set it off.

SAR officials recommend that if you press the button on an EPIRB, don’t move unless you really really have to. I wouldn’t suggest they’re idiots, though. This just sounds like another consequence of having EPIRBs in the hands of so many people today (which is what officials are intending) that there’s a lower average understanding of how to use them. Buttons are being pressed when people think they’re in danger (and maybe they are) and think it’s an emergency (and maybe it is), whereas previously a high proportion of those incidents would have sorted themselves out once people sat down to collect themselves without having the EPIRB available. The trade-off is that from time to time, all these extra EPIRBs save someone’s life, or make what would have been a lengthy expensive search much faster and cheaper.

#9 Comment By Rik On 9 January, 2013 @ 5:36 pm

And another one.
This contains your two favourite E words in one story- EPIRB and Experienced.
The search was instigated by the worried mother after they were a day late but as I read it the couple themselves are saying they would have used a beacon if they had carried one. In either case, they were in no real danger.

#10 Comment By Mike McGavin On 9 January, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

Thanks Rik. Yeah. I guess to be fair, the woman in that story was swept down a river and hit her knees somehow and maybe there’s more to that story. It’s hard to tell. I’m reluctant to get too knotty about this because I don’t want to come across as suggesting people shouldn’t get an EPIRB… it’s not exactly a bad idea for most people, but sometimes it almost seems as if someone out there has decided it’s too hard to focus on encouraging people to do things safely and responsibly, compared with making sure everyone has an EPIRB so they can make a rescue easier once things are screwed up.

[17], and quoted a figure of 33,500 registered beacons in New Zealand, and it’s thought that 1/3 in total aren’t registered. If this is extrapolated, it’d stretch to 50,000 EPIRBs. If they’re $600 each (just me guessing since there are so many different types and I don’t know what the breakdown is), it works out to a very very approximate figure of $30 million of mostly private money having been spent on buying high-tech EPIRBs, not counting the various maintenance costs,. and SAR officials want people to keep buying more of them.

Obviously the benefit here is far more complex than just money and there are plenty of reasons to have an EPIRB (they sometimes save lives, for starters), but as someone who sometimes notes that EPIRBs make SAR cheaper overall, it’s made me wonder about how much money is actually being privately spent on buying EPIRBs compared with what’s collectively being saved of public money through having fewer drawn out searches, maybe off-set against extra operations caused by activations that really weren’t necessary. (Even more complex would be to compare money spent in NZ compared with money importing things from overseas, but that’s just getting unnecessarily academic and sort-of missing the main points. 🙂 )

#11 Comment By Wayne Clark On 9 January, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

the majority of search and rescues are in towns for the elderly and those with mental problems who get disoriented, doesnt quite stack up in the glamour stakes against high country helicopter rescues…

#12 Comment By Mike McGavin On 15 January, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

And apparently now [18].

#13 Comment By Mike McGavin On 16 January, 2013 @ 8:53 am

Stuff now has [19], albeit quoting the same quote.

#14 Comment By Mike McGavin On 19 January, 2013 @ 11:29 pm

Now I’m confused. [20] is almost identical, but reckons they were all inexperienced. Probably the Herald’s mistake.

#15 Comment By Gazza On 15 January, 2013 @ 5:26 pm

Naturally, that way they could have been crucially found safe and well a day or two before they were…found safe and well.

#16 Comment By Mike McGavin On 15 January, 2013 @ 5:38 pm

Yes that echoes my thoughts. There are good examples of EPIRBs saving lives, but if this was one of them then it hasn’t been stated why.

Interesting they were picked up at one of the Tararua bivs that’s not marked on official maps.

#17 Comment By Basketcase On 15 January, 2013 @ 6:02 pm

Lol, yeah, I noticed the biv name and was like “huh?” I’ve never heard of it.
In fact, my Tararua Footprints specifies that “There are no huts in the system” (speaking of the rivers above Waitewaiwai Junction), and then mentions Island Forks only because its mis-labelled on some older maps.

And I too see no evidence for a need to set off a PLB in this case, even if they had one.They had food, shelter and a minor injury, plus were stuck on the far side of a swollen river. I suspect that if the river had not been too high to risk, they could probably have managed to walk out (TF suggests about 2 hours from the forks to YTYY hut) by mid-day Monday.

#18 Comment By Mike McGavin On 15 January, 2013 @ 6:33 pm

I think I remember seeing something like it in the distance when I was in that area ages ago, but I’m not certain and can’t remember exactly where. It was definitely artificial, but could’ve been a temporary DoC structure/camp or anything. I’ll definitely keep a proper watch whenever I’m there next time.

#19 Comment By Wayne Clark On 16 January, 2013 @ 9:00 am

a lot journalists dont think for themselves, they just rehash what everyone else is writing without analysing a situation for themselves, do a quick write up then on to the next story. life is easier that way… there is only one answer, get a beacon, end of story, no argument no cons..

#20 Comment By Mike McGavin On 16 January, 2013 @ 9:09 am

But in an area where there’s little popular media expertise, they’re going to the experts and repeating what the experts are telling them. I don’t always like the media handles things, but I’m disappointed that this line is getting repeated at them so frequently.

When a person’s family members are being encouraged to start nagging them about taking an all-important PLB instead of nagging them for clear detail about where they’re going and when they’ll be back, there’s something not totally right.

#21 Comment By Wayne Clark On 16 January, 2013 @ 9:14 am

they dont want a debate on the issue, they want it simplified and they want everyone to live happily ever afer on their simplified advice,
you still need to lodge intentions with with someone, locator beacons arent infalable. if they dont work and that was your only hope for rescue then you’re really stuffed.

#22 Comment By Wayne Clark On 16 January, 2013 @ 9:30 am

on the high mountain rescue programme there was one rescue of a gent from a flooded river valley, he’d used a locator beacon, otherwise they woudlnt have known where he was an probably never found him. what they didnt tell you was, his locator beacon failed initially, he had to take it apart and work on it to get it working, he’s one lucky man., he came across as very blase after the rescue, he regularly does remote areas of fiordland on his own, he’s in his seventies… I hope he got his locator beacon serviced thoroughly after or replaced or his luck will definitely run out and hopefully he’ll leave a detailed record of his intended route and stick to it…

#23 Comment By Matt B On 11 December, 2013 @ 4:22 pm

DOC have a “flyable” biv up there for project kaka. I’ve referred to it as “at Island Forks” and been corrected, so it’s probably not right at the forks. But somewhere in the vicinity. On the list for this year (and that’s running out)

#24 Comment By Mike McGavin On 11 December, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

Hi Matt. It must have been there for a while if it’s the Island Forks one I think I saw. That was back in Feb 2008, which I’m fairly sure pre-dates Project Kaka, but there could have been something else going on at the time.

It’ll be interesting to hear about how you go if you find your way out there some time.

#25 Comment By Gazza On 16 January, 2013 @ 9:43 am

Hi Basketcase,

I think you could make a case for setting off a PLB in this instance (if they had taken one) since, despite the fact they were in no immediate danger, they were stuck and unable to get out before a search started anyway. In which case it would save time, money and free up resources quicker if the searchers had a beacon to home in on.

That being said, the fact they made sensible choices (stayed put at shelter, didn’t attempt to cross flooded rivers, left their intentions with someone who raised the alarm etc) should trump the fact that they didn’t have a PLB.

It just comes across as a wierd case to be using in the push for the use of beacons

#26 Comment By Basketcase On 18 January, 2013 @ 1:53 pm

Thats what I was debating with my better half – when you know SaR are likely to be out looking for you because you are overdue, do you set off the beacon to save them time, or do you opt not to, hoping it points out to them that while stuck, you are not in desperate need?
Also, with the fact the mother was ex-SaR herself, she probably would have rationalised that bad weather + intended route + highly experienced person, who left good intentions notes and probably had good safety gear = SaR not overly worried before some time Monday. So in that case, when do you set it off?
It doesn’t sound like they were on the tops (nor intending to be), so my first thought would have been that they might have been stuck the far side of a river.

So, yeah, totally agree with you – perhaps if they had had one, they could have set it off. But then did SaR fly them all out, or only the injured one and walk out the others since the river might have dropped? And its totally the wrong case for the PLB push – they did everything else right, and were found somewhere they were expected to be. People like this do not deserve to be pilloried, unlike the runner a few weeks back, who was treated like a returning hero by the media!

#27 Comment By Mike McGavin On 18 January, 2013 @ 10:39 pm

Thanks for the [21], incidentally.

#28 Comment By Mike McGavin On 19 January, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

[22] is interesting. The final paragraph is on the edge of outright stating that people should follow the five outdoor rules or take a PLB, as if the latter makes the former unnecessary!

#29 Comment By Gazza On 11 February, 2013 @ 1:33 pm


I am not sure how I feel about this beat up, he activated the beacon at 4.30 pm on thursday when he was due out thursday/friday. To my mind a lot depends on how far away from the road end he was and if a search would have kicked off anyway.

Its interesting that the NZ maritime service is the one considering if there should be action taken, not sure if they would have the expertise to judge a situation like this?

Also interesting that its not really in keeping with other cases, I am thinking mostly of the two woman snowed in at a hut 2 days into a multiday trip a while back. They were also delayed but were in no danger and could have simply come out late.

#30 Comment By Mike McGavin On 11 February, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

Hi @Gazza. Hold that thought as I’m writing a post about this one, but it might be a day or three before I’ve calmed down enough and managed to structure everything I want to say. I found it quite maddening to read the beat-up and the stream of one-dimensional string-em-up comments that followed. It’s come directly from [24], too! I’m unsure why Stuff wiped all the comments of its National-level story (including yours from what I remember), but [25] still has a representative list. 🙁

#31 Comment By Gazza On 11 February, 2013 @ 4:57 pm

Thanks for the link to the The Press rendition of the article. I added a comment to try and bring some balance to the rabid opinions in the comment section (yeesh, they were nasty). Hopefully my comment gets approved.

I look forward to your write up.

#32 Comment By Mike McGavin On 11 February, 2013 @ 5:50 pm

The Nelson Mail has also *finally* approved [26] of the same story. Interestingly, once you scroll up from the trash, there are actually some more balanced perspectives from a few people, including someone who claims to know the man and reckons the situation has been completely mis-represented.

#33 Comment By Gazza On 3 January, 2014 @ 2:36 pm

Another article stating that you should now take two forms of communication with you into the hills:


At least the article acknowledges that the group made good decisions (which I am guessing is in reference to them backing out of the river crosssing and deciding to wait the flooded river out at the hut). Presumably the also left good intentions which enabled searchers to find them quickly. This quote is interesting however “‘‘A personal locator beacon would have alerted authorities that there was a problem at a certain location which could have reduced the search time”…I don’t think there really was a problem that required a PLB activation, they were fine and just delayed. I can the sense in having a way to communicate that info outside a PLB if possible however.

#34 Comment By Mike McGavin On 3 January, 2014 @ 4:43 pm

Hi Gazza. Yes I saw that this morning and it’s triggered at least a few discussions around [28] and [29]. I reckon the advice is often fairly random depending on who does the talking, which I guess can be good and bad. (Bad because it’s random, but good if it means that the advice can at least be contextual.) Advice around acceptable PLB use is just ambiguous at best, as you’ve said.

I’d be interested to know what the intentions actually were. Given its reputation I’d have thought most groups planning to walk down Penn Creek would benefit from a back-up plan of having to return the way they came and maybe allow at least an extra day, but apparently it wasn’t factored in.

Considering the weather today, I’m wondering if maybe a helicopter was sent in to check things a day earlier than it might have been otherwise, simply because if something really was a-miss, it’d make a lot of sense to get searchers in and out of Penn Creek (if necessary) before it received some heavy flooding as must have been predicted. Maybe other factors also influenced it if there was reason for Police to believe that the group might not have necessary skills, or an ability to camp out, or something.

A mountain radio or some other 2-way communication probably wouldn’t have gone a-miss in a situation like this one, but I don’t know of many people who even consider that these days, especially on short trips. Apparently mountain radios don’t have much standing in official safety plans right now, so I’ve been told.

#35 Comment By Gazza On 5 January, 2014 @ 1:08 am

yip, seems they hit trouble trying to follow Penn Creek out and decided to back track their route in instead. It sounds like they made some sensible decisions (pulled out of the creek, took time at the hut to get themselves and their geared dried out).