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An update on that “inappropriate PLB activation” incident

In February I wrote a lengthy post [1] 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 [2] 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 [3] with respect to activating the PLB. (Here’s the Fairfax coverage via the Nelson Mail [4] or the Press [5], 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 [6] 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 [1], 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 [7].

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.

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "An update on that “inappropriate PLB activation” incident"

#1 Comment By janianb On 12 June, 2013 @ 5:46 pm

RT @izogi: An update on that “inappropriate PLB activation” incident: In February I wrote a lengthy post, based on a major me… [14]

#2 Comment By Gazza On 14 June, 2013 @ 9:21 am

nicely spotted.

3 days into a 5 day tramp and having trouble makes a lot more sense than the garbled mess that was reported at the time (he was running late, 3 hours from the carpark and due out the next day…), and the decision seems to vaidate my view that if a search was going to kick off anyway (because he wouldn’t have made it out on time) then better to activate the beacon earlier and avoid making a fatigue fueled mistake in dangerous terrain. Nice to see common sense prevailing in the end.

#3 Comment By Mike McGavin On 15 June, 2013 @ 10:44 am

Hi @Gazza. Thanks for the response, and I agree. It’s almost as if the Maritime NZ GM had one or two gripey reports and was trying to make some kind of example. At least it’s sorted now, and hopefully it hasn’t done too much damage.

#4 Comment By BushwalkingBlog On 14 June, 2013 @ 3:25 pm

Windy Hilltops — An update on that “inappropriate PLB activation” incident: [15]

#5 Comment By Grant Rawlinson (Axe) On 14 June, 2013 @ 6:07 pm

This is a common problem in the mainstream press – factually incorrect articles which are hastily written by journo’s who are not normally experts on the subject matter. Unfortunately they can write things which inflame the public opinion about people who go into the outdoors ‘recklessly’ and ‘waste tax payers dollars needlessly’ and ‘put rescuers lives at risk irresponsibly’.

#6 Comment By Mike McGavin On 15 June, 2013 @ 10:48 am

Thanks Grant, agree totally. I guess it’s also a symptom of a media which probably doesn’t have much profit margin, or resources to commit to investigation of many incidents. In this case, the article that was repeated over and over was just regurgitation of a highly biased-one-sided press release, and that happens all too often. 🙁

#7 Comment By Basketcase On 6 August, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

That, and the fact that (to be brutally honest) quite a lot of reporters are actually just stupid.
I spent some time working in a newsroom in 2012 / early 2013, and some of the conversations I heard about Major news events of the time were rediculous – they were missing basic knowledge, like when the Tongariro Eruption occured, listening to one on the phone to a GNS scientist was so painful!
The problem is, as you say, there isn’t a lot of money there, so the ones who have the smarts tend to move on to investigative journalism, rather than reporting. And day-to-day events just dont get covered in investigative journalism sectors.

#8 Comment By Mike McGavin On 15 June, 2013 @ 10:50 am

Not too surprisingly, the latest story about the completion of the investigation is also [16].