False alarm could have been pricey

Discarded rescue beacon triggers Search and Rescue operation

Campbell River Search and Rescue (SAR) thought they were responding to save someone in distress last week, only to find they were actually searching for a rescue beacon someone had thrown in their garbage.

On Oct. 15, a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) signal was received by the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Trenton, Ont., coming from “near McIvor Lake,” according to SAR manager Grant Cromer’s report of the incident, at which point SAR was contacted.

A PLB is a personal locating beacon that people carry and emits an emergency signal to a system of satellites when the user presses the emergency button. Some rescue beacons use commercial satellite systems monitored by a private satellite provider, but according to the report, the signal from this beacon was transmitted directly to the Department of National Defence JRCC in Trenton.

“We received beacon coordinates (from JRCC) that showed a location near a roadway south of the landfill,” Cromer says.

Generally, PLBs are required by law to be registered to an owner so that when they go off, SAR teams can determine if it’s a real emergency and so searchers can contact next of kin to get more information about the missing person’s plans for their outing or trip.

“In this case, the signal was corrupted, which means there was no registered owner, so we had no way to follow up and determine if it was a legitimate emergency or an accidental alert,” Cromer says.

So they had no choice but to treat it as the former.

Three tracking teams were deployed to the area, and eventually triangulated the signal to a small area within the landfill itself, buried under garbage. With the help of landfill staff, they dug up a portion of the ground, but were unable to locate the beacon. Satisfied they had determined the cause of the signal, however, the team was, “confident that the beacon was there, but buried and not attached to an actual person,” at which point they contacted JRCC Trenton to shut down the beacon’s signal.

“It was a bit of an unusual call for us,” Cromer says. “We usually are dispatched to these types of calls and find an injured or lost person at the other end very happy to see us. In this situation, it was probably a case of someone throwing away an old beacon and not knowing or understanding that these units still have the ability to arm and send a signal.”

But he says they will take the false alarm as an opportunity to educate the public on these devices.

“These are not toys. You can’t just toss these away. Environmental concerns aside, they have the ability to turn on years later when shocked,” Cromer says, and when SAR receives a signal, they respond, devoting resources based on the perceived need.

This particular response tied up a dozen SAR members for over seven hours only to find that “someone threw away a beacon probably thinking that was the end of it, but it wasn’t.”

Had this been a registered beacon, Cromer says, “it probably would have resulted in the deployment of a DND 442 SAR Cormorant out of Comox which would have resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in search cost.”

Cromer also says this unfortunate false alarm situation also served to illustrate how well the system works.

“Federal Air and Marine SAR agencies working hand in hand with Provincial Ground SAR to pull together a great response to what turned out to be a nice piece of detective work on our members’ part,” Cromer says.

It also shows that PLBs work, too, if people use them correctly.