Clarity on not charging for Search and Rescue in New Zealand

This incident occurred just over a week ago, but I’ve avoided posting until now. I was annoyed when I first saw it, and still am, but not for the same reason as most other people who have expressed their brief opinions in the comment thread below that article.

A man activated a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), sometimes called an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), whilst tramping in the Paringa Forest area of South Westland [map], and a helicopter collected him. The pilot later reported the man as having said “he had significantly underestimated the amount of time to get out of the area and was struggling with the challenging terrain”. This has become a media article with a headline that complains about the rescue helicopter being treated as a taxi service, and begins with a claim, not clearly substantiated by other information, which asserts the man was “running late and wanted a ride to his car”. Now, the Rescue Coordination Centre of New Zealand (RCCNZ), a sub-section of Maritime New Zealand, is “considering” whether to charge the man, threatening a possible penalty of up to $30,000.

A carbon copied story has been replicated throughout the Fairfax eco-system of newspapers and websites within New Zealand and Australia. The Herald has an identical take. It’s identical because the journalists on all sides are merely parroting a Friday press release from the RCCNZ, including the headline and opening paragraph. [Update 12-June-2013: The RCCNZ has now cleared the man of any wrongdoing with regard to activating the PLB.]

I’m disappointed with this press release and its inflammatory tone. The facts are not established beyond hearsay, and if Maritime New Zealand truly does plan to take the matter to court, I don’t think it should be spreading such things in the media. Thanks also to the one-sided nature of the text, comment threads on those media repetitions which host them are mostly one-dimensional hang’em brigades. Based on the press release they scream that the man is an idiot, and that he should be heavily charged for the rescue. If it’s enough to indicate that there may be another side to this story, however, the Nelson Mail’s rendition of the story (from the man’s home town) attracted a comment from a person who claims to know the man and the circumstances, and believes the RCCNZ’s information to be sensationalised.

PERCEPTION OF COSTS

Charging a person for search and rescue in the back-country is not easy under New Zealand law. It’s also unprecedented. One of the most important reasons is that if people are dissuaded from requesting a rescue when they need it, the situation can become much worse, and risk can increase for all involved.

Whether the claims expressed by the RCCNZ match the facts or not is only part of the issue. Avoiding perception that people might be penalised for signalling they’re in trouble when they really are in trouble is an important SAR strategy. The threats of the RCCNZ, even without action, risk damaging that perception. The man may have knowingly abused rescue services, but if the matter never reaches court, there will be no establishing of the actual facts, and confusion about the possibility of penalties for requesting a rescue may increase.

Pointless delay can create trickier, more complex and unnecessarily higher risk for rescuers and those being rescued. In New Zealand we’re presently fortunate that the official rescue system is mostly unified nationwide, and there’s low confusion about charging for rescue, but it’s not the case everywhere. In a recently documented example from late January, rock climbing college students in Colorado were trapped 60 metres up a rock-face, and wasted 90 minutes debating whether they should call for help. More than anything else, they were afraid that they could not afford to pay for their own rescue. The eventual rescue was much trickier than would have been necessary, now being on slippery rock, in darkness, and in deteriorating weather. The rescue was completely free, and always would have been in that district. To complicate things, however, authorities in some areas of the USA would have issued an invoice. This is certainly not the only such incident. The Colorado SAR Board records additional examples of people [PDF] who resisted calling for help, or tried to resist, or even hid from help, when it arrived, through fear of having to pay.

New Zealand Police, in particular, want people to get them involved in a potential incident sooner rather than later, but this is already difficult. A criticism made by Police after this recent incident in the Kaimanawas is that a missing 62 year old woman’s companion had spent an entire day searching before he resolved to notify search authorities. Eventually found after 3 days, having by then had sufficient time to wander a long way, fall off a cliff and into a river, she was very lucky to be discovered before she died. Anything that might delay a person from calling authorities in such a risky situation, including the impression that a person might be charged or penalised for making a mistake, needs to be handled extremely carefully.

HOW SAR IS COORDINATED IN NEW ZEALAND

New Zealand’s two main cost-bearing agencies, mandated to coordinate Search and Rescue, are Maritime New Zealand (via the RCCNZ) and the New Zealand Police. If the operation is the consequence of an accident, costs can generally be re-claimed from New Zealand’s Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) government insurance scheme, but otherwise it’s either of these two agencies that handles costs from its own budget.

The RCCNZ coordinates Class II operations. These equate to any operation triggered by activation of a PLB. PLBs, even those designed for land use, are technically marine devices, and so the RCCNZ’s monitoring of PLBs is a sub-set of a greater responsibility to coordinate major maritime and aviation searches. For back-country SAR with a PLB, an exact position will usually be known. The RCCNZ’s typical response, after calling the registered contact numbers for that PLB, is to send a response crew straight there (usually by helicopter), assess the situation, and deal with it.

The New Zealand Police coordinate Class I operations, which are generally land-based operations where a PLB is not involved. Back-country operations of this class are typically invoked by reports of overdue people, emergency calls to 111, requests for help via the various mountain radio services, and so on. These operations often don’t start with an exact position, so can involve large search components. This may mean first learning about a person’s plans, abilities and preparations. Search staff can spend much of their time attempting to predict the most likely places for a person to be found, and how urgently they might require assistance. Class I operations in the back-country are also more likely to include coordination of wider resources and volunteers such as the trained search specialists of LandSAR. A search and rescue operation of this type may be over quickly, or could last for days or weeks.

Either agency has an obligation to decide to rescue a person (or not) once they’ve assessed if the situation warrants it. With the decision being made by the authority rather than the rescued person, the law does not provide a mechanism to directly transfer costs. If your situation is thought less of an emergency than you claim it is, coordination staff might as easily decide to leave you where you are, effectively telling you to harden up.

CLAIMS OF BILLING FOR RESCUE

Despite New Zealand’s long precedent of not charging people, every so often a frustrated search official suggests that it may be possible to extract money from rescued people.

Police have occasionally expressed frustration at poor preparation or silly actions, and publicly advised that it’s possible to extract money from people. In this example of October 2010, a Police spokesperson stated they have power to “bill” people for rescue, implying that the costs could be directly transferred. This is, for nearly all occasions, false. Whilst not cited directly, maybe because doing so might help someone to locate and read the actual law, such claims by Police have usually been a reference to section 24 of the Summary Offences Act—colloquially referred to as Wasting Police Time.

The text of the law, which requires intent to cause wasteful deployment, makes it seem unlikely that Police could easily use it to prosecute a person in any normal SAR situation. It would be necessary to show that a person had an intention of causing wasteful deployment of Police resources. eg. Maybe a person might think it a joke to trigger a fake call-out, or hide from rescuers. As much as people might under-prepare and make dumb mistakes when outdoors, making dumb mistakes wouldn’t be enough to prosecute under this law. It wasn’t designed with search and rescue in mind, and it’s only relevant at all if Police are involved. It’s also a critical distinction that, unlike the Police assertion above, this would not be “billing” a person for rescue. There’s nothing in this law about transferring costs. It’s a criminal prosecution in a court, which wouldn’t necessarily result in an equivalent amount of money, or any money, being returned to Police. It could as easily result in a person being jailed.

Fortunately the Police generally get this. Aside from the occasional rebel officer stating otherwise, there’s an over-arching policy of being extremely careful about inferring any penalty for requesting a rescue, lest it deter people from requesting a rescue when they need it. I hope there’s a similar mindset in most of the RCCNZ, but I find the tone of its recent press release concerning.

The RCCNZ didn’t provide direct references about what it has in mind, but it looks like a reference to this 2003 declaration that makes broadcasts by 406 MHz Satellite Distress Beacons (including PLBs) legal in the first place. It grants a general licence to use a PLB “for the transmission of radio waves for the purpose of obtaining assistance where safety of life or property is threatened”. The declaration is made in line with Radiocommuniactions Regulation 9, declared under section 116(1)(b) of the Radiocommunications Act. That section of the Act enables a possible $30,000 fine if a regulation is breached, or a $250 infringement fee. In other words, the RCCNZ proposes to use a regulation that’s primarily designed to protect New Zealand’s radio spectrum from interference to prosecute a person for requesting a rescue.

If the man in question had been in the same situation but used a non-PLB device as a substitute for transmitting an emergency signal, such as a SPOT Beacon or a Delorme InReach Beacon, both of which transmit their emergency signal over a satellite telephone network instead of the 406MHz frequency, the law would be meaningless. A bizarre outcome, if the RCCNZ were to proceed with prosecution, could be to incentivise people to avoid PLBs in exchange for alternatives that don’t operate on the emergency frequency, despite an inferior ability to transmit an emergency signal, just in case the RCCNZ were to disagree with an activation.

Prosecuting someone under this regulation may be possible, but to do so requires interpretation of when it’s acceptable to activate a PLB. One only needs to read, for example, the response to this incident in the Fish n’ Hunt forum, which is full of people who spend time outdoors, to realise how much conflicting opinion there is on the acceptable use of a PLB. Unless the circumstances which make it okay, or not okay, can be clearly and objectively communicated, the only fair way to prosecute would be to rely on the judgement of the person who requests a rescue. In threatening prosecution with such a noisy press release, I hope the RCCNZ has clear evidence that the man understood his situation did not warrant a rescue call-out when he activated his PLB. If it comes down to accusing him of making a bad decision, I don’t think it’s good enough.

WHY THIS INCIDENT?

I guess I’m also confused in how the RCCNZ has reacted. Why has the RCCNZ, with this specific incident, decided to make a huge deal of an estimated $10,000 taxpayer cost, and a possibility that the man could be charged up to $30,000? It’s not as if there haven’t been recurring incidents of other people activating PLBs inappropriately prior to now.

For example, why not make lots of noise about this group? They activated a PLB, then ran away and were nowhere to be found when the RCCNZ sent a helicopter to find them. Contrary to the latest incident, all we saw was a quote from the RCCNZ stating that it was understood who the trio was, that they probably weren’t in danger, and expressing sympathy towards their likely discomfort. After this, the story evaporated.

Why not any of the other comparable cases in recent history? I’m only in a position to speculate. Perhaps everyone had a stressful day and in such a context this man’s problems seemed unnecessary. Perhaps the man was a person whom they thought should be better at coping than stereotypical young, naive tourists. Perhaps a specific person on duty at the RCCNZ had an axe to grind about silly rescue requests. Perhaps someone saw, and liked, this nearly-identical headline from Tasmania less than a month earlier, even if they hadn’t read the text that stated it was inappropriate charge people. It’s as likely that the man with the PLB just happened to be the guy who pushed someone past melting point, probably spurred on by previous incidents like this one.

Making an example of him, however, by prosecuting him under the available law without precedent or public discussion, even threatening to prosecute him, is inconsistent with general SAR policy that’s meant to avoid confusing people into thinking they might be penalised for a rescue request. It’s a bad idea. If the RCCNZ wish to make an example, it would be more fitting to assess situations upon visiting a site, and be prepared to refuse to collect people who aren’t deemed to be in trouble, in the same way that the Barker Hut trio were left where they were in 2008 when Police refused to classify their situation as an emergency.

I can’t say exactly what happened there and then. I don’t know why the man pressed the button or what was going through his head at the time, but I do know that not everyone’s comfortable being honest about what happened during a time of weakness. I’d be surprised if the only thing to it was that he’d casually decided signalling an emergency would be a convenient way to return home on time. People don’t always think rationally when they’re tired and under stress. He may have convinced himself that there was no way he could escape his situation safely, and (in line with what’s often advised) it was best to request help early rather than risk waiting. He may have simply had a moment of panic. Or maybe he knowingly did exactly what he’s being accused of with the intent of mis-using the service. I’d really like to know, but there’s no information except accusations.

It takes a moment to set off a PLB, and they’re unforgiving once activated. Whilst marine users are often equipped to quickly cancel an activation with a radio call, such luxuries are rarely available for back-country users. The RCCNZ provides a phone number to abort an accidental activation, but it’s unlikely to be useful for trampers, hunters and mountaineers. If you’ve a mobile phone in the range of any provider, it’s possible to dial 111 for an emergency, and you probably should have done so prior to, or at the same time as activating the PLB.

Unnecessary rescue call-outs are no small thing. As the RCCNZ correctly notes, they risk diverting resources from genuine emergencies. Relying on the person requesting help to judge their own situation, however, is also part of the process with PLBs. If the real issue is that too many people can’t recognise genuine emergencies, or that too many people are creating emergencies of their own making through bad preparation, the problem won’t go away by threatening to prosecute those who activate unnecessary call-outs. At best it will create a new situation whereby people who need help will be afraid to request it for reasons unrelated to their direct problem at hand, and that could be worse. The situation can only improve by increasing education about preventative back-country safety, and consequently helping people to know when they’re really not in trouble, and to avoid problems as much as possible before they occur.

PLBS, PUBLICITY, AND PREVENTATIVE SAFETY

The RCCNZ has been one of the biggest recent contributors towards telling anyone and everyone in the back-country to carry PLBs, to make it easier to request help when it’s needed. From some aspects this is good, but the publicity is frequently not combined with a push for people to act safely and avoid emergencies. I wrote about this recently. With current publicity, a simplistic public belief is developing that people are idiots, and wasting everyone else’s time and money, if they don’t carry a PLB. This is even the case for people who might use excellent preventative safety measures such that they’re much less likely than certain others to require a SAR call-out in the first place.

Press promotions from the RCCNZ like this one, which make a big deal about how great PLBs are, have been typical in recent times. The very same promotion, however, ignores that its first example is for people unprepared to stay warm, dry, and wait out time behind a flooded river. There may have been more to the story, but its simplistic presentation stresses that having a PLB to request a helicopter was more important than being prepared to do everything possible to avoid requiring a rescue. Being stuck behind a flooded river with hypothermia is an unenviable situation, and it’s true that the PLB may have saved lives under the circumstances. On the other hand, modern safety equipment, recommendations and standard training would mean that with proper preparation, people should generally be able to keep warm and sheltered whilst waiting for conditions to improve. Human nature is that people make mistakes, but if it were from another agency then such an incident might have attracted criticism for being unprepared. Instead, the RCCNZ offers praise for being equipped to request an immediate emergency rescue at public expense.

On January 1st of this year, TV3 ran a news item which enabled the RCCNZ to further impress the value of PLBs. TV3 pointed out how they could mean instant rescue. Its story considered the recent case in the Tararua Range of a man who didn’t have a PLB and may have died if not for some good fortune. A highlighted point was that a PLB would have saved the man much more quickly, yet the story neglected to note that he’d also broken several of the basic rules of the Outdoor Safety Code that would have prevented his problem long before it started, or at worst resulted in a relatively quick search and rescue by Police and LandSAR volunteers.

The Outdoor Safety Code is a set of very simple preventative safety rules developed by the SAR Secretariat and the SAR Consultative Committee of the NZ Search and Rescue Council. In other words, Maritime New Zealand (and the RCCNZ) was directly involved in its development, along with the coordination work of the Mountain Safety Council, which is New Zealand’s flagship institute of back-country experience, skills and training. Despite all this qualified effort and direct involvement, the RCCNZ very rarely seems to promote it.

The message of the RCCNZ has been one-dimensional. It’s not a strategy of preventative outdoor safety. Rather, it’s a message of how to conveniently call a flying ambulance by using the technology that the RCCNZ monitors. The message doesn’t emphasise anything likely to result in fewer total incidents. It may even increase the total incidents unnecessarily.

The mass up-take of PLBs in the last few years is great in many ways, but fanned by this simplistic form of promotion it also means that those who carry them are less likely to be suited to determine if their situation is a true emergency, or merely an uncomfortable situation. Some people who carry PLBs also rely on them, ignorantly or otherwise, to cover their own inadequacy of preparation in other areas. (I’ve written about such inadequacies previously.)

If the RCCNZ finds the results of its publicity frustrating, I think it should reconsider its promotional strategy around PLBs and preventative safety long before it considers threatening court action on people who activate them. PLBs need to be promoted as a single component of a much greater plan, not as a miracle answer to back-country safety’s problems.

The RCCNZ is not alone, either. The New Zealand Police, despite tending to be more reliable in promoting additional aspects of outdoor safety, sometimes also simplistically tell people to carry PLBs. This Police press release, from 19th January, could be interpreted to mean that a PLB is at least as important as, or more important than telling people where you’re going, and following the five rules of the Outdoor Safety Code. The press release is probably just lazily authored, but it contributes to the recently propagated but mis-leading message that possession of a PLB is the all-important definitive aspect of outdoor safety.

There’s no doubt that PLBs save lives through being able to summon immediate help in an emergency. Some emergencies such as head injuries, secondary drowning, and heart attacks, require a response as immediately as possible. People with such problems would often have died in the past, yet PLBs sometimes make it possible to save them. When used appropriately, they also make SAR operations less expensive by removing the search component. There are many great reasons to carry them. I don’t, however, want my never-go-tramping friends and family, whose main exposure to outdoor safety is via popular media, to be asking if I have a PLB before they ask about everything else. I want them to be pestering me for information like where I’m going, what I have with me, and when I expect to be back. Other people’s never-go-tramping friends and families should be asking the same things, but I wonder if the focus of our concerns is being skewed towards prioritising token aspects of outdoor safety instead of the fundamentals.

IN FUTURE

I’m not averse to prosecution of people who knowingly abuse the system, but I’m uncomfortable with this occasional and unpredictable enthusiasm of some officials to leverage indirect sections of New Zealand’s existing law. It’s not consistent, it creates uncertainty, and it undermines the carefully crafted policy of most SAR officials of not penalising people who ask for help. Even if there’s no intent to follow through, these sideshows risk damaging the fragile public perceptions which the no-charge-for-rescue policies are meant to encourage.

If people are ever to be penalised in New Zealand for requesting back-country rescues, there should not be a systematic way of directly transferring costs, for the same reasons. Any penalty needs to be about clear and intentional abuse of the system, there needs to be a court involved, it needs to be a criminal process, and it needs to be absolutely clear to everyone that a person was penalised because they had intent to waste the time of emergency services.

If change is necessary, it should only happen with a clear, open public debate about exactly how it should work, what people’s expectations should be, what makes it okay to request a rescue without risking a penalty, and what law changes might be needed to make this happen. The stakeholders and outdoor users need to be involved so we can have something that works, instead of getting something that creates more problems.

Government agencies and stakeholders, such as the Mountain Safety Council, LandSAR, and outdoor groups like the NZ Alpine Club and Federated Mountain Clubs, could also help by developing a clear message of back-country safety to be consistently pushed by all back-country SAR authorities. Such a message really already exists in the Outdoor Safety Code, and it’s already promoted at times. Unfortunately some of the agencies for which this code was developed now appear to be ignoring it in their publicity. Consequently, publicity is inconsistent and often dismissive of advice that was carefully prepared, depending on who’s speaking.

The focus should be on requiring fewer SAR incidents in total, rather than having more immediate rescues once someone’s found themselves in trouble. The ability to get ambulances quickly to the bottom of a cliff is a fantastic thing, but promoting it as a fundamental safety measure seems to miss the point.

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