Search & Rescue
Photo: Peter Hamill
Bush rescuers face a mixed blessing Technology is making it easier to find the lost or injured, but reducing field experience for volunteers, Frank Nelson reports.
ersonal emergency locator beacons are taking the ‘search’ out of Search and Rescue, says Gerry Tonkin, president of Motueka SAR, one of five regional rescue groups covering the top of the South Island. The beacons pinpoint a person’s whereabouts by transmitting GPS co-ordinates and are usually activated when someone is in serious trouble. A helicopter can lock in on the signals and quickly locate the person, but when a chopper can’t land because of dangerous terrain or some other reason, SAR rescuers make straight for the same spot to complete the rescue. Either way the high-tech gadget, roughly the size and shape of a cell phone, saves a lot of vital time and manpower. That may make the traditional function of Search and Rescue a little redundant, but you won’t hear any complaints from Gerry. Back in 1998 he played a key role in setting up the Nelson Area Locator Beacon Charitable Trust, which provides affordable access to PLBs from depots in Richmond, Stoke, Takaka, Collingwood, Motueka and even Westport. Gerry says that when the trust started beacons cost about $1000. That has now come down to around $300, but it’s still out of reach for many people, which is why the trust offers rental rates of $30 per week or $20 for a Friday-Monday weekend. And the savings are not just measured in time and money. “I reckon we’ve probably saved 100 lives since the trust started,” 42
“I reckon we’ve probably saved 100 lives since the trust started.” G E R RY TO N K I N , M O T U E K A S A R
says Gerry, who retired from the police two years ago and has been involved with SAR since 1981. “We’ve currently got 60 beacons so there’s no excuse for people not to hire one.”
Help much closer at hand
Technology is changing the face of SAR in other ways. For example, improved cell phone reception is increasingly helping rescuers to locate lost or injured people – or those suffering medical emergencies – in more remote areas. And, usually in urban districts, tracking pendants worn by people with conditions like dementia or Alzheimers mean they can be easily located using radio antenna if they wander from home or a care facility. As technology nibbles away at the role of SAR it also threatens to diminish the motivation and commitment of volunteers who must complete significant training while perhaps seeing less operational work in the field.
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