There are a variety of emergency beacons available for public purchase.
There are a variety of emergency beacons available for public purchase. AMSA

Why some search and rescue efforts end at the dump

FALSE activations of life-saving emergency beacons are an increasing problem, and a costly time waster, for responders making up about 80% of all activations in NSW.

Australian Maritime Safety Authority data revealed 139 inadvertent emergency position-indicating radio beacons were triggered across the state last year - a nearly 20% increase on the 2015 figures. 

Mishandling, incorrect storage or disposal as well as hoax or other unintentional activations are defined by AMSA as false detections.

When activated in Australia an EPIRB sends a distress signal to a series of satellites, which calculate the estimated coordinates within a 5km radius of the device to AMSA's control centre in Canberra.

The Westpac Rescue Life Saver Helicopter is sometimes deployed as part of AMSA's emergency response when a beacon is activated.

Crew chief, Roger Fry said the chopper responds to an estimated two activations a month.

Last month, the rescue helicopter joined an air and ground search for an EPIRB from Ballina and north along the coast.

The beacon was later tracked to the Ocean Shores residential area where it was located and de-activated, according to the chopper's mission report.

This is one of hundreds of false activations that occur each year nationwide.

AMSA's senior advisor , John Ophel said activations in general tend to occur in regional areas with the Northern Rivers cited as average area for EPIRB alerts.

Rubbish tips are becoming hotspots for search and rescue crews to uncover EPIRBs which haven't been disposed of properly, according to Mr Ophel.

"Some people are unfortunately throwing them in the general waste, the beacon then is in a tip, it gets wet and it activates," Mr Ophel said.

"We are doing more and more searches in tips to find beacons that is obviously not necessary." 

Mr Ophel said AMSA is working to reduce the high numbers of phantom beacon activations.

"There's the inconvenience, there's the problem they could be doing real rescue work and there's the cost to the Australian tax payers," Mr Ophel said.

He said about 70% of the false alerts can "be worked out with a phone call" to the registered owner of the beacon.

AMSA estimates about 30% of EPIRB owners aren't registered but there is no Federal Law that legislates the mandatory registration of the devices.

User education is among "various fronts" Mr Ophel anticipated would be more effective "than having a big stick of requiring everyone to register."

EPRIB care tips

  • Register your EPIRB. You can register free at AMSA's website.
  • Call AMSA immediately if you accidentally set off your EPIRB. There is no charge or fine for unintentionally triggering the device.
  • Dispose of your EPIRB properly. Check the beacon manufacturer's instructions, they may provide instructions on how to disconnect the beacon battery. Once disconnected, contact your local waste management facility to ask about disposing of your unwanted beacon in an environmentally friendly way.

For more information, visit AMSA's website.

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