An update on that “inappropriate PLB activation” incident

In February I wrote a lengthy post based on a major media incident where a man was reported to have activated a Personal Locater Beacon (PLB) because he was “running late”. This wasn’t just out-of-control media, however. It was sparked by a hasty press release pushed out by the Rescue Coordination Centre of New Zealand (RCCNZ)—the part of Maritime New Zealand which is responsible for monitoring and responding to PLB activations. In my opinion, the press release was full of inflammatory and unverified innuendo that accused the man of “apparently” mis-using the beacon, and it then threatened to charge him for mis-use. At the time, popular media lapped it up.

It’s great to see, therefore, that the RCCNZ has now completed an investigation and cleared the man of any wrongdoing with respect to activating the PLB. (Here’s the Fairfax coverage via the Nelson Mail or the Press, which have different comment threads.)

To me this whole incident seemed uncharacteristic and inconsistent on the part of the RCCNZ, certainly when compared with other rescue organisations. I haven’t seen reliable details of the specific incident and therefore can’t comment on this man’s case, except to note that being cleared of allegedly activating a PLB without an emergency doesn’t necessarily mean that things couldn’t have been done better to avoid problems in the first place. What I do know is that PLBs are activated regularly in New Zealand, and some activations are definitely less appropriate than others. I still don’t understand what was so incredibly special about this incident which caused it to be singled out. I can’t see any clear reasons why the man’s actions were taunted so strongly and inconsistently, especially from official sources, when there are so many other incidents to choose from.

More importantly, however, the whole exercise, including the original press release, went against an established SAR strategy of doing everything possible to avoid confusing people into thinking they might be penalised for requesting help when they actually need it. As far as I’m aware, nobody has ever been charged for an official rescue in New Zealand under the current structure. As discussed in my original February post, there’s no clear provision in law for a person to be billed for such a rescue, and the exact conditions under which a person could be penalised at all are also legally ambiguous. This doesn’t mean that there might not be good reason to penalise people, under certain circumstances, who abuse the system, but I don’t personally think that encouraging a media circus helps anyone.

Further to my other comments in that February post, regarding how the RCCNZ in particular seems to have a recent history of implying to people that PLBs are more essential than anything else, it’s good to see that Maritime NZ’s General Manager of Rescue and Response Services has now gone on record as stating that “Beacons are not a substitute for good planning”. I hope this signals the beginning of a long and healthy relationship between the RCCNZ and promotion of New Zealand’s Outdoor Safety Code.

What’s less clear is whether the RCCNZ will change how it reacts in future when it comes to publicising threats to charge those who request help. Overall I believe it’s unhelpful to issue such threats before there’s been a clear consultative discussion amongst stakeholders about what circumstances would actually be appropriate for a person to be penalised if and when they request a rescue.

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