There was a report a couple of days back of some people being rescued in Kahurangi National Park, having activated a personal locator beacon.
The three women […] had been tramping on the Leslie-Karamean track when they became stranded on Sunday by the rising waters as they attempted to get to the Venus Hut.
After retracing their route, they sheltered at Thor Hut overnight before reassessing their situation. With river levels still rising on Monday morning, the women activated their emergency locator beacon. […]
Rescue helicopter pilot Barry McAuliffe said the women set off the beacon so people meeting them at the end of the track didn’t consider them overdue.
“They were just worried about their deadline at the other end and if they weren’t there at the end then all hell would have broken loose,” he said.
There’s been some criticism in social media about whether this was an appropriate activation. From that description is reads as if they were most likely safe at a hut.
Exact guidelines for appropriate PLB use are ambiguous. The NZ Radiocommunications regulation which grants a general licence for broadcasting signals on 406 MHz states that it’s only legal to send a signal under that licence if safety of life or property is threatened. The Mountain Safety Council states that PLBs “must only be used in life threatening situations“. Maritime New Zealand’s Beacons page has a lengthier explanation (abbreviated below):
A distress beacon is an emergency device to be used when assistance is required to ensure the safety of lives e.g. any life threatening situation or when a serious injury has occurred – it is not a taxi service!
Situations can deteriorate rapidly, however, if you are unsure about when to activate the beacon, it is better to activate it and get help – don’t wait until it’s too late!
When considering activating your beacon please remember that carrying out a rescue can be extremely dangerous not just for the casualty but for the rescuers as well, particularly if the rescue is carried out at night or in poor weather conditions. If your situation is not life threatening and you are in a safe and secure position it may be prudent to delay activation of the beacon until daylight or the weather conditions improve.
In other words, the agency that’s mandated as a first responder to PLB activations in New Zealand states that it might be acceptable to activate a PLB if you think the situation may get worse. That makes sense.
The pilot quoted above suggests that the activation was appropriate, and without a full context beyond a media that’s often incomplete and inccurate with this type of thing, it may be worth giving the party the benefit of the doubt. This is certainly a good opportunity to discuss some of the wider issues around PLB activation, though.