Tramper right to activate beacon

A tramper accused of activating a personal locator beacon because he was running late and wanted a ride to his car has been cleared of any wrongdoing after an investigation.

The Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) launched an investigation into the incident in February, following concerns expressed by rescuers.

On the third day of an intended five-day untracked tramp, the 67-year-old activated the beacon in the Otoko River headwaters in the Hooker Wilderness Area on the West Coast of the South Island.

The incident tied up a helicopter for around two-and-a-half hours, at a cost of around $10,000 to taxpayers.

Maritime New Zealand said at the time it would have been inappropriate, potentially dangerous, and a clear breach of radio regulations if the man had activated the beacon simply because he was running late.

But now, after a thorough inquiry, including interviews with participants, no further action was required.

The man had agreed to better plan future expeditions and to avoid underestimating the difficulty of terrain, said Maritime New Zealand's general manager of safety and response services Nigel Clifford.

"He had encountered more difficult terrain than anticipated, despite carrying out extensive research of the area, and felt that he would be putting himself at considerable risk by attempting to walk out of the area," Mr Clifford said.

"We are satisfied that in the particular circumstances this person was justified in activating their emergency beacon.

"Had he continued, it is likely a search and rescue operation would have been initiated because he was overdue - and if he wasn't able to activate the beacon for any reason, conditions in the area would have made finding him very difficult. The terrain in the area is extremely hazardous, with large boulders covered by thick undergrowth.

"We certainly do not wish to discourage people from activating beacons when they are in distress but it is not a decision that should be taken lightly."

Penalties for the misuse of a beacon include a formal warning, a $250 penalty and prosecution - which carries a maximum fine of $30,000.

Mr Clifford reiterated the need for people going into wilderness areas to be prepared.

Beacons are not a substitute for good planning, he said, while people going into wilderness areas should be aware of weather forecasts and carry suitable communications equipment such as a mountain radio.

"Cellphones should not be relied upon," Mr Clifford said.


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