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Changing Times

It’s silly season again, where holidays collide with pre-February weather. An annual bubble of SAR-related incidents has hit the news-wires in the past few weeks.

One story in particular first came out on January 2nd. It concerned a search for “five young trampers” in the Tararua Range who planned to walk to Penn Creek Hut via Table Top, then follow Penn Creek and the Otaki River back to Otaki Forks [1]. They were reported overdue, and it was resolved quickly after Police sent a helicopter into the range, only to discover the group completely safe at Penn Creek Hut, drying out gear having turned around.

For some time now, especially since the old track which sidled above Penn Creek was washed out, the route has become notorious for parties becoming stuck and requiring rescue. This group had not required a rescue, but that information was not available and so a search operation was launched anyway.

Search officials use many factors to decide how likely it is that somebody might need help. There’s not enough reported context to fully explain why a search was launched when it was. My guess, however, is that a combination of “5 young people” plus “Penn Creek” plus “several waves of incoming torrential rain and certain flooding”, and very possibly some additional information, left doubts about the party’s ability to cope with circumstances on its own, and led to a conclusion of a reasonable chance that the group might be in trouble.

From the moment of that conclusion, the situation needs to be resolved as urgently as possible. If a helicopter had not found 5 relatively-happy people drying their gear in a hut, it might have been necessary to inject ground teams into some awkward parts of Penn Creek, and lift them out again, during a short window of time prior to likely floods.

The reports of this incident inspired an untypical amount of attention in social media. One of several examples is on Federated Mountain Club’s Facebook page [2]. The main discussion, however, was neither about the details of the trip nor the actual search operation. The most common angle of interest has been on the comments from police afterwards.

Specifically, Police spokesperson Andy Brooke was quoted as saying “it is a timely reminder to take at least two forms of communication with you when venturing into the outdoors.”

The discussion has probably been prompted because this statement isn’t so much a recommendation to consider if taking communication is appropriate as a directive to take communication, on an implied assumption that the necessity of communication is now a foregone conclusion. The two particular forms of communication with Mr Brooke propsed were a PLB, and a Satellite Communication Device such as a SPOT or inReach.

It’s sparked some informal debate about at least two things: (1) Whether a PLB would have made a difference in this situation given that the party had no actual emergency, and (2) whether parties should be obliged to carry any communication at all.

On the (1) PLB question, it wasn’t stated outright by Mr Brooke, but the most likely reason that a PLB might have made a difference in a non-emergency situation is that if a party possesses a PLB and it’s not activated, search officials will typically take this into account. The most likely scenario for a party known to have a PLB, but who haven’t activated it, is that there’s no emergency… at least in early days. As I re-read Mr Brooke’s quote, I’m not even sure if there was an intent to infer that a PLB would have made a difference in this specific situation. Sometimes these lines are just template recommendations which get pushed at the media as part of an ongoing effort to promote the carrying of PLBs generally.

For a long time now, I think there have been confusion and inconsistent messages about when it’s appropriate to activate a PLB, partly as a consequence of the devices being thurst onto anyone and everyone, in an effort to get as many out there as possible. The official line (and the law) is that a PLB should only be activated in a life-threatening emergency. If you read the text of the licence that makes it legal for PLBs to broadcast in NZ [3], it also seems to allow activation for a property-threatening emergency, but this isn’t generally encouraged where terrestrial devices are concerned. It probably wouldn’t go down well if someone activated their PLB because a Kea was tearing up their bootlaces.

Besides the actual emergency-only law, a recurring (but unofficial) line seems to be that it’s sometimes acceptable to activate a PLB, where there’s no emergency, if it’s likely that a search has begun, so as to prevent rescue resources being wasted. Furthermore, PLBs have at times been activated in circumstances which seem to match neither of these conditions, and not been harshly criticised. This might happen if someone perceives an emergency where none exists or because they’ve misunderstand the rules.

With so much existing confusion, I’m not sure if the latest quote from an official has made things any worse than it probably already is. It may have been helpful if the statement could have clarified how the carrying of a PLB might have been useful in this instance of “5 young people” who had no emergency, which was being reported.

The more general question (2) regarding carrying of communication tools at all is touching on an issue which gets closer to many people’s fundamental views around getting outdoors—some people like to leave their communication channels behind, because it’s part of the experience. When two people died near Kime Hut in 2009 [4], one of the noted criticisms from the Coroner and elsewhere was that a cellphone (which might have made a difference) had been left in their car, and probably not by accident. It may have cost them their lives, but at least several other things which were more basic would also definitely have made a difference before communication about a problem was even a consideration.

For myself, it’s really only been in the last few years in my own mix of tramping friends that I’ve noticed a possible shift in attitudes towards carrying cellphones, compared with totally vilifying their presence in the outdoors in the beginning. On this topic, the January 2014 edition of Wilderness magazine (page 86) includes an article titled The Technology of ‘Pure’ Wilderness. In it, Mick Abbot considers the spreading of communications equipment into the hills, the intrusion that’s perceived by some (even by merely meeting others who are casually communication with those outside), and the effect it’s having on what’s treated as normal.

Apart from mountain radios, which have been available in some form for a long time, it’s not until very recently—about the last decade—that it’s even become practical to communicate with the outside world from within New Zealand’s back-country. Even cellphones, when available, have usually only worked on the fringes. Adding to this in the last few years, however, is the availability of SatPhones and related devices such as SPOT and inReach.

All of these devices come with technological advantages and disadvantages when compared with each other. For those who carry them, they generally reduce risk simply by making communication possible under some or all circumstances. It was a completely valid assertion from Mr Brooke that, in the recent incident in Penn Creek and when SAR has become so capable and efficient that it’s more possible then ever to quickly launch an extensive search, a SPOT beacon could have informed rescuers that there was no need to launch a search.

Accessible communications gear, however, doesn’t really replace anything from established systems and processes which were in place 20 years ago, and nor does it make the basic stuff unnecessary. I’m open to argument here, but I think that if things are done “right” to begin with, being able to communicate will only increase safety a small amount for situations where it’s not possible to sit and wait for a rescue in a predictable location. Example situations where immediate help brought by a PLB or a similar device would include things like head injuries, secondary drownings, heart attacks, and probably a few others. For other cases, if a party has left good intentions with a trusted person, stuck with them, and gone prepared to wait for help, it’s likely that they’ll be safe albeit possibly uncomfortable.

As was noted by Anne Lawrence of the Palmerston North Tramping & Mountaineering Club [5], however, there’s no reason to think that it’s unsafe to enter the hills without communication devices. On the other hand, there’s always an obligation to take care to avoid trouble, to be as prepared as possible to deal with unforeseen situations, and to leave clear intentions information to make a search as easy as possible where it might be necessary.

What these devices definitely do add, besides making a difference for those critical situations mentioned above, is a lot of conveniece for parties in the outdoors and potentially for rescuers. The right types of communication enable higher flexibility in plans, by allowing a contact person to be notified of adjustments. In an emergency situation they can help a SAR operation to start and finish much more quickly and effectively than would otherwise have been possible. These are the sorts of reasons why I’ve chosen to buy myself a PLB [6], and take it with me.

Lately there has been a push towards both encouraging and obliging people to take sophisticated communications gear into the bush [7], whether it’s a PLB or something which enables richer communication avenues… as long as it works… such as a SPOT beacon or an inReach beacon.

These can all be good ideas, but I’d stop short of declaring them as essential as has recently been happening in some circles. I don’t think they are essential when other things are being done well, except for incidents which are on the more extreme end of problems. I’d hate to reach a point where people are expected to take such devices as a rule instead of as a choice, especially when there have always been practices that have been considered generally safe without them.

I’m also cautious of the idea that anyone on the fringes of visiting the outdoors might be put off or vilified by the potential cost or complexity of obtaining and carrying a PLB or other equipment. PLBs can be hired, but it’s still not necessarily cheap for someone on a budget, and doing so can add significant complexity to planning, especially for relatively ad-hoc visits to the outdoors. Some other devices, like SPOT beacons, require ongoing service subscriptions for them to even operate.

What is important however, which is a clear part of the Outdoor Safety Code [8], is to know your limits and remain within them, to prepare well (including being ready to shelter and feed and wait out the time after being reported overdue), to leave good intentions with a reliable person, and confirm these intentions at every reasonable opportunity along the way such as by writing in hut books. Adding a PLB, or any other communications device, to one’s equipment will assist with a rescue in the unfortunate cases where one might be required, but if everything else has been done then it hopefully won’t have much of an impact on the final result in most circumstances, with a few exceptions.

The group which sparked this incident were credited by Police for making a good decision to turn back to Penn Creek Hut, but that alone didn’t prevent an unnecessary search operation. If intentions alone can’t be convincing enough to provide an accurate estimate of a situation for search officials (and that might still be the case for very capable parties in an area like Penn Creek), then it probably is prudent to take some extra communications to help alleviate doubt for those outside if things don’t work out as planned. In the past for a trip like this, and today, it might have meant taking a Mountain Radio. Today there are more options, including a SPOT beacon, an inReach beacon, or a SatPhone.

All of these devices are potentially fallible. They won’t guarantee that an emergency call will be broadcast, or that a “perfectly fine” message will be broadcast. There’s no guarantee that the device won’t be lost. They don’t replace good skills, preparation and intentions. If there’s a heightened risk in the ether, however, they’ll improve the ability for everyone to accurately interpret what’s going on.

All this said, times have always been changing and they’re still changing. I know what I think, but I guess the jury’s out.