EPIRBs in The Age: "Broken-down drivers misuse beacons"

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EPIRBs in The Age: "Broken-down drivers misuse beacons"

Post by zebedee »

STRANDED drivers are using emergency locator beacons as a virtual roadside service, summoning helicopters and rescue teams to help with minor engine trouble or bogged cars, according to authorities.

Figures from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which co-ordinates all signals from distress beacons, show Australians are increasingly misusing the devices and the national system set up to respond.

More than 248,000 emergency beacons are registered in Australia, with nearly 5000 registered to ACT owners. So far this year, 1700 have been triggered nationally, of which 266 resulted in searches, with only 109 found to be genuine emergencies.

A map of where the beacons are being activated shows many are being triggered in capital cities or urban areas.
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An AMSA spokeswoman said there had been 400 inadvertent activations and 21 confirmed hoaxes so far this year. Some signals have been traced to rubbish dumps where signals from older 121.5MHz frequency devices that have been thrown out and triggered have been picked up by passing aircraft.

This month, Portland police launched a rescue operation in response to a beacon set off in a state forest and thrown into a dam.

In December, a rescue helicopter was sent to Tasmania's west coast chasing a lost beacon that had been activated by wave action. West Australian police have already successfully prosecuted and recovered rescue costs from those maliciously triggering devices.

The changeover to the 406Mhz frequency has also led to problems with parents thinking signals from older devices would no longer be picked up and giving them to children.

"The ease of use of the distress beacon can make it the first, rather than the last, line of requesting assistance," the spokeswoman said.

"Unfortunately we have seen misuse of the distress beacon system through drivers activating their beacons due to minor engine trouble … [or becoming] bogged or broken down in areas where there is no other means of gathering assistance."

Australia has the highest per capita use of distress beacons in the world, with more than 3000 new devices registered every month. While authorities are eager to encourage their take-up to protect lives, the cost of sending helicopters and rescue teams to hoaxes or false alarms risks putting a dent in rescue budgets.

The Snowy Hydro SouthCare helicopter that services the Canberra and southern NSW area was called to nine non-medical search and rescues last financial year. Fully laden with staff and equipment, the helicopter costs about $6000 an hour to operate.

Chief executive Owen Finegan said the cost of responding to false alarms needed to be balanced against the cost of searching for those who did not have the proper equipment with them, such as a search that lasted for three days late last year for a woman trapped in her car near Tumut.

"You obviously can't carry them with you all the time and the majority of people do take risks into consideration, but accidents can still happen even when well-prepared, so we encourage people to carry beacons when going into the bush or out in a boat where they might need them," Mr Finegan said.
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Re: EPIRBs in The Age: "Broken-down drivers misuse beacons"

Post by zebedee »

The comments on The Age website at the bottom of the article run the usual gamut from downright daft to worthwhile.

A key point which emerges is the gap between situations which are relatively trivial but which without communications or outside help may turn serious and the traditional "mayday". In a marine radio course 20 years ago, MAYDAY was described to us as "I will soon have nothing to stand on" or "someone is about to die", with anything less serious being, at least initially, a Pan Pan. In other words, an EPIRB cannot communicate a message that "I am OK but stuck and unless someone shows up and helps me within a few hours, this could/will turn rather serious". It is a beacon, not a communication device, even though the modern units do transmit enough code to identify themselves and in some cases giving a GPS derived position.

One of the other attendees at the radio course, who frequently travelled in remote areas by 4wd for both work and pleasure, asked about using one in the outback. At the time, they were not approved for use on land, but the consensus seemed to be that if you were in real trouble and it saved a life, then anything goes.

Unfortunately (?) it seems they've become cheap enough for every Tom, Dick and Harry to carry one and think it lets them get careless in the bush. Despite being intended for life threatening situations, in the absence of an alternative, they're in danger of also becoming the roadside assistance of the bush.

In fact there IS an alternative; one person alludes to but does not name the Spot Messenger which allows limited outgoing messages. I've seen quite a bit of debate about the relative merits of the Spot versus an EPIRB for remote area motorcycling. There's clearly a place for both products.

Others go on about penalties, but too much publicity for these may discourage people in genuine trouble from activating an epirb until things get REALLY pear shaped.

No one mentions the concept that modern EPIRBS are identified and registered to an owner and have associated contact details. This means that directly targeted information campaigns about correct and appropriate use are possible and that authorities can now investigate a triggering before launching expensive helicopters.

Given that the protocol already allows for limited data transmission, perhaps what is required is an EPIRB that has a "PAN PAN" signal as well as a MAYDAY signal? Surely there's a single bit somewhere in the existing protocol which could be used? There are 49 bits for identification and position data; re-allocating 1 bit to MAYDAY versus PAN PAN would either halve the number of units which could be identified per valid country code or very slightly decrease the precision of the position sent.

I guess in the long run, the current COSPAS-SARSAT service will be replaced or modified to accommodate EPIRBs with the capacity for some sort of short message, or perhaps SPOT will come up with a combined device which is both an approved EPIRB and communicates with the SPOT system. Perhaps satellite capable mobile phones will become much cheaper or ordinary mobile phones will become available with SPOT service or an SMS like satellite based equivalent when out of terrestrial range.
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Re: EPIRBs in The Age: "Broken-down drivers misuse beacons"

Post by INMA »

The users pay principal needs to apply for people to take the issue seriously.

If you get hit with the bill for a rescue when you just needed roadside assistance the recovery of costs seems reasonable to me. Give the agencies the support to recover the costs quickly and things would change reasonably quickly.

The punishment for hoax signals also needs to reflect the risk associated with the offence. Taking all those rescue assets off line seaching for a hoax also means the assets are not available for any real event. Make it a criminal offence for anyone to do a hoax emergency call on telephone or EPIRB or radio and make the fines and punishment significant.

I can have my boat and car confiscated for a fishing offence yet hoax call that can put many people at risk is a warning. See how people respond to doing hoax calls if they loose their car or boat or house when caught.

The recent riots in Sydney which were started with a phone message encouraging violence are in the same class of crime. As a community we must stamp out people whose actions deliberately put others at risk for some warped personal gratification. And if the deliberate act of using an EPIRB illegitametely results in someone's death or injury, hold the criminal responsible.
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Re: EPIRBs in The Age: "Broken-down drivers misuse beacons"

Post by sparks_3096 »

I noticed too this interesting article on the use and abuse of Emergency Beacons. The article does make a good point at the end, I found it quite well balanced.

My takeaway points included:

Old 121.5 MHz devices are still being detected by Aircraft. If incorrectly disposed of, these can easily provide false alarms if triggered. Hoax activations like hoax calls to "000" cost the community a lot of money and the time of the emergency responders. It would be a pity or tragic if a hoax or false activation of the Emergency Beacon caused the delayed response to a real emergency e.g. a helicopter was in need of refuelling or the police or ambulance was still on the other side of the river.

The Emergency Beacon is an all or nothing system... in general, may people who can not raise assistance via conventional means (e.g. mobile phone) for minor inconveniences do not understand the activation of a emergency call via the Emergency Beacon, like the call to "000" will be treated as a full blown emergency until proven otherwise. The planning, training and use of an alternate communications device such as two way radio should be considered in planing any adventure or even the routine daily activities.

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Re: EPIRBs in The Age: "Broken-down drivers misuse beacons"

Post by barnaclephill »

I read the article too. Quite interesting.
zebedee wrote:No one mentions the concept that modern EPIRBS are identified and registered to an owner and have associated contact details. This means that directly targeted information campaigns about correct and appropriate use are possible and that authorities can now investigate a triggering before launching expensive helicopters.
I think this is reflected in the statistics, quoted.1700 activations, but phone calls eliminated 84% of them. Most of the rest were not emergencies, but obviously people couldn't be contacted by AMSA to verify.
On the topic of the older models. I had an old 121MHz one, time expired in the shed. I ran the test flashing light until it expired and flattened the battery, then turned it off. A few days later I tested it again and was surprised that it still had some charge. So I opened it up to see what it was made of. As you do. I disconnected the 2 lithium batteries, (tore the wires) and then hammered the circuit board and some chips so it could never send a signal even in the dump.
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Re: EPIRBs in The Age: "Broken-down drivers misuse beacons"

Post by Mojo »

I understand running out of fuel or having engine troubles is hardly an emergency situation and perhaps these folks should have been more prepared to start with, however I can see some sense in setting off an epirb in these situations. These folks may have been in no immediate danger, however if they didn't return home that night a search would have been intiated anyway, at least with an epirb that search would be brief and use far less resources then searching a vast area.

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Re: EPIRBs in The Age: "Broken-down drivers misuse beacons"

Post by zebedee »

It's that "Stranded far from help, going nowhere but in no danger, need a lift out to get help" category isn't it. The people who just need someone to drive past and discover them, but it might not happen until next week.

I guess the nearest nautical equivalent is to have a gear failure, say rudder (with an outboard in a well) somewhere remote but basically safe like up the remote reaches of Lake Tyers, where there's nowhere to walk to and you might get discovered in a few hours or in a few weeks.

Of course if you've got a proper "didn't come home" plan, someone will know where you've gone and that you have an EPIRB so that if you don't come home, but don't activate the EPIRB they know you've got a non life threatening problem or you're dead.

All of which leads back to the conclusion that the Spot devices are probably more appropriate for remote area travellers whose emergencies will inherently tend to be "Pan Pan" in nature rather than "Mayday" - even after a nasty crash or rollover they still have something to stand on!
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Re: EPIRBs in The Age: "Broken-down drivers misuse beacons"

Post by Ozzie »

Sadly, this is not at all surprising. This forum and the Investigator forum are my only form of social media but given the extensive coverage on internet trolls in the past week im glad I don't frequent Faceplant or Twatter or whatever. There are common themes here. Take new technology, a good thing, make it cheap enough and spread it round and eventually it becomes ruined by idiots. I remember the early days of CB radio in the late 70's. My mates and I bought cheap sets to talk between cars on canoeing trips. Soon the airways were full of mouth breathers and seedless mellon heads swearing at each other and at the RI's (Radio Inspectors).

The old frequency beacons should have had a refundable cancellation component in the price to make sure they were returned responsibly. I hate big government but I agree with INMA, fines all round for oxygen thieves committing bogus beacon :|
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Re: EPIRBs in The Age: "Broken-down drivers misuse beacons"

Post by Cookiesa »

Funny thing Ozzie is UHF now has the same problem as the units have become cheaper, yet the old 27mhz radios are less cluttered and generally only used by radio enthusiasts now, making them better than UHF Lol.

We sell PLB's which are intended for emergency use, and as such we discuss this use with the customer, usually these days in conjunction with encouragement to hire or buy a satphone (under $1k to buy outright these days with prepay plans)

The point we try to push is that it gives them a form of communication to get assistance without a rescue effort. Unfortunately with these things now widely being sold online and everywhere I don't doubt a lot of those selling them wouldn't have a clue and probably reinforce the notion to trigger it to get assistance.

Perhaps with the introduction of the new frequency a "licensed" seller program should have been initiated that involved educating the buyers.
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