Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Using or Activating a Distress Beacon

Why use a distress beacon?

When should I use a distress beacon?

What happens when I activate the beacon?

What is the best way of setting the beacon off?

How long does it take before the distress signal is detected?

How soon will help arrive?

Can I use my distress beacon overseas? 

What do I do if I activate it by accident or no longer need assistance?

Advice for pilots re activating their ELT 

Why use a distress beacon?

Distress beacons save lives - they are designed to provide your approximate location to the appropriate Rescue Coordination Centre so rescuers can be sent to assist people in distress.

In some cases the carrying of a distress beacon can be mandated under law e.g. Aircraft registered in NZ are required by the Civil Aviation Authority to carry an ELT.


When should I use a distress beacon?

Distress beacons should only be used when there is a threat of grave an imminent danger.  In the event of an emergency, communication should first be attempted with others using radios and other signalling devices.  

Mobile phones can also be used, but should not be relied on as an emergency communication device as they may be out of range, have limited battery life, or not be suited to the environment.

A distress beacon is an emergency device to be used when assistance is required to ensure the safety of lives e.g. any life threatening situation or when a serious injury has occurred - it is not a taxi service!

Situations can deteriorate rapidly, however, if you are unsure about when to activate the beacon, it is better to activate it and get help - don't wait until it's too late!

When considering activating your beacon please remember that carrying out a rescue can be extremely dangerous not just for the casualty but for the rescuers as well, particularly if the rescue is carried out at night or in poor weather conditions.  If your situation is not life threatening and you are in a safe and secure position it may be prudent to delay activation of the beacon until daylight or the weather conditions improve.

For further guidance around correct beacon use, please read the beacon activation scenarios provided on the real life scenarios page.


What happens when I activate the beacon? 

On activation, your distress beacon will try to locate one of the Cospas-Sarsat satellites.  Once the satellite detects the beacon's signal it will transmit this information to the Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) responsible for the region the beacon has been detected in.  The RCC will then try to establish the exact location of the distress beacon using information from the beacon registration.  They will also phone the contact people you have listed when the beacon was registered.

It is vitally important that the beacon owner keeps the contact details they have listed on their registration up to date as the information these people can provide on your whereabouts can prove vital in establishing your position.


Once an approximate position for the distress beacon has been established then the RCC will locate and task the closest and most suitable rescue asset to render you assistance.  

This may take the form of a LandSAR team, a rescue helicopter, a coastguard unit, a Defence Force asset or in some cases the closest vessel of opportunity.


What is the best method for setting the beacon off?

Read the instructions and know how to use the beacon before you venture out into the great outdoors!

The beacon's signal to the satellite can be blocked by hilly terrain, if possible try find a place clear of obstruction e.g. on a hill top is better than in a valley.  Acknowledging that this is sometimes not possible.

Activate the beacon according to the manufacturer's instructions.  

Ensure the aerial is as vertical as possible.  

Once it is activated, leave it on, look after yourself and wait, help will come but it may take time.


How long does it take before the distress signal is detected?

There are two key factors that contribute to how long it will take for your distress beacon to be detected, these are:

  • The location of the distress beacon and the location of the satellites
  • Whether the beacon is GPS coded or non GPS coded

Location of beacon and satellite

In order for your distress beacon to locate a satellite it must be able to "see" the satellite i.e. there must be a line of sight between the distress beacon and the satellite.  There are two types of satellite that can detect an active beacon, these are:

  • Stationary satellites called GEOs, the closest one to New Zealand is located on the equator half way between NZ and Chile. As this satellite is so far away it can often be masked from distress beacons in New Zealand due to the terrain.  For beacons on the western side this satellite is too low on the horizon to be able to see the beacon.
  • Orbiting satellites called LEOs that orbit between the north and south poles.  Depending on the position of the earth and the position of the satellite at the time, these satellites pass over New Zealand on average every 90 minutes.  This can vary anywhere from 30 minutes up to five hours between passes.

The time it takes for the beacon to be detected can therefore vary considerably depending on the position of the satellites and the position of the distress beacon e.g. it will take considerably longer to detect a beacon in a deep valley than it would a beacon on a boat on the east coast of New Zealand. 

GPS or non GPS coded distress beacon

If your beacon has GPS capability then the position will be transmitted to the first satellite that detects it.  This position will then be sent directly to the Rescue Coordination Centre which greatly reduces the time it takes to organise a rescue.

If your beacon doesn't have GPS capability then it may take several satellite passes before the beacon's position can be triangulated.  If the beacon is in a deep valley not every satellite pass will detect it so it may take several satellite passes over the course of a number of hours before an accurate position can be obtained.  This will greatly increase the time it takes to organise a rescue.


How soon will help arrive?

As soon as your location has been determined the Rescue Coordination Centre will start planning for your rescue.  This doesn't mean however that help is immediately on the way.  

How long before help arrives will depend on a number of factors.  These are:

  • Your location
  • Availability of rescue assets
  • The environmental conditions 

The more remote your location then the further rescue assets have to travel to get to you.  This could vary from hours to days.

Asset Availability

New Zealand has a large number of very capable search and rescue assets, so if you are within New Zealand territorial waters then there are plenty of available assets.  If, however, you are further afield then the quantity and types of rescue assets available is limited.  Often the Rescue Coordination Centre is required to call on passing fishing or cargo vessels (vessels of opportunity) to come to your assistance and in some cases these vessels may be days away from reaching you. 

Environmental Conditions

Sometimes the weather or lighting conditions simply make it too dangerous to immediately mount a rescue mission.  In this situation the RCC may be required to wait until conditions improve before dispatching rescue assets.  These assets will, however, be on standby and may pre-position themselves as close as possible to the beacon location so that they can respond as fast as possible once the weather improves.

The bottom line is sometimes rescue is only a matter of minutes away but sometimes it could take days.  Leave your beacon on, stay put, look after yourself and be prepared to wait.  Help will arrive as soon as possible.


Can I use my distress beacon overseas?

Cospas-Sarsat is a global system and distress beacon alerts are received by the satellites from anywhere on the Earths surface.  

If a New Zealand coded distress beacon is activated overseas an alert will be sent to the Rescue Coordination Centre responsible for the region in which the distress incident is occurring.  A second notification is then be sent to RCCNZ where the beacon's registration details are kept. 

Likewise, alerts from beacons registered in other countries that are activated in the New Zealand search and rescue region will be received by RCCNZ, and by the RCC the beacon is registered in.

The two Rescue Coordination Centres will then work together to ensure a coordinated rescue is carried out. 


What do I do if I activate it by accident or no longer need assistance?

As soon as possible ring the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) on 0508 472269 or 0508 4RCCNZ and advise them that help is not required.  They will then instruct you that it is OK to turn off your beacon.

If you are unable to make contact with RCCNZ, leave the beacon on and then endeavour to make contact with one of the following:

  • NZ Police call 111
  • Maritime Operations Centre via marine radio on VHF channel 16
  • Airways Corporation

If contact cannot be made through any of these means, a rescue resource will have been dispatched, so leave the beacon on until advised by the rescue unit to turn it off.

There is no penalty for inadvertent activation.

Once your beacon has been turned off it is a good idea to have it serviced, particularly if it has been on for a long time.  Your service agent will be able to advise if the beacon has sufficient battery life or whether a replacement battery is required.


Advice for pilots re activating their ELT

When an ELT is first activated it can take anything from 50 seconds to two minutes before the ELT can establish contact with the satellites. Also, unless the ELT is connected to the aircraft GPS, it can take several minutes more before the satellite can establish a location.

It is highly recommended if you find yourself in a distress situation that the ELT is activated manually in the air rather than relying on the automatic activation.  This will give the ELT as much time as possible to establish contact with the satellites.

Activating the ELT at altitude also increases the chances of the signal being detected before it can be masked by terrain should the aircraft crash.


Key Supporters


Home   |   Registration   |   Update and deregister   |   Audit   |   Distress Beacons   |   FAQs   |   Activating a Beacon   |   Beacon Care   |   Purchase or Hire   |   Beacon Disposal   |   Real Life Scenarios   |   Technical Information   |   Outdoor Safety Advice   |   Download Brochures   |   Contact Us
© Copyright 2021 by Maritime New Zealand