After having recently studying all about EPIRB’s in my Ocean Yachtmaster course, I realised that I had learnt a lot about how the system works, but I was still in the dark as to what actually happens behind the scenes at the Rescue Coordination Centre once you press the button.
Then came a chance email conversation with a retired employee of New Zealand Maritime Radio. “You should go and visit next time you are in Wellington!” he suggested.
We pulled up to Avalon TV Studios in Upper Hutt. The tall building, covered in satellite dishes, looked almost deserted. There was no signage suggesting we were in the right place. I picked up my phone and called the Rescue Coordination Centre to ask and it seemed that we were and Conrad came down to let us in.
Thankfully it was a quiet day on the Rescue front, and so we were welcome to come in and have a look around. The RCCNZ have recently relocated to different offices in the same complex. This allows the whole team to be together on the one floor.
Today it was just Conrad and Dave in the office, however they have a larger team who are all on call around the clock should any major disasters occur. They work 12 hour shifts. Two days on, followed by two night shifts and then four days off. The RCCNZ looks after all land, air and sea rescues in NZ.
The world is divided up in to different Search and Rescue areas with various countries tasked with looking after that particular patch. NZ’s area is one of the largest in the world covering a large chunk of the South Pacific.
The main wall of the room had six large TV screens. One screen displayed the satellites and where they were tracking. Another showed the current weather conditions over NZ, while a third screen showed the NZ rescue area and all the vessels with AIS showing their current positions. They could click on a vessel and display its name, speed, course, destination and other details. They could also switch over to see all the aircraft in the air and their positions as well.
Dave asked if we had an EPIRB and after typing my name in to his database he immediately brought up all the details I had given the distress beacon database. They could see that my PLB was registered to a yacht and all the contact details that we had given. He explained the importance of having up to date information and contact details for the people who are most likely to know our whereabouts and to give them more information that could assist in a rescue.
So what happens if we were sailing up the coast and set off our EPIRB?
Well firstly an alarm would sound in the RCCNZ, pretty much within seconds of us pressing the button. This alerts the RCCNZ that there is an issue and they now know which EPIRB has been set off. Using that information on our registration they can bring up all the details we have given them.
Once the EPIRB has obtained signals from at least three satellites, it will then also send the RCCNZ a position – lat & long, which they can plot on their screen.
So now they know that there is a vessel (or it could be an aircraft or a hiker in the mountains perhaps) who has got an issue, and they know our location, and our contact details. They won’t know the nature of our distress unless we had managed to also make a distress call on the VHF or SSB radio, this message will be passed over from Maritime Radio to the RCCNZ.
The pieces of the jigsaw puzzle all start to fall in to place.
First of all if we are sailing up the coast, they would check with Maritime Radio to see if we had lodged a Trip Report. This would give them the information about where we were heading, how many people were on board, and our last known position. They have got our contact details from our registration, so they might try calling us on the mobile phone. If they couldn’t get hold of us then they might start making phone calls to the other people on the list. Although sometimes this can cause problems as well. The first person on my call list is my Mum. She is very likely to know our whereabouts and probably give the RCCNZ some more information, however she is then likely to start to worry!
Then they have a fantastic database of resources available. They can click on ‘helicopter’ and bring up all the helicopters closest to our area. This will tell them the range of the helicopter, the rescue tools on board – if they have the capability for night vision and winching people from boats etc. The AIS system will tell them if there are any vessels already in the area. They have contact details for Coastguard stations, and all sorts of other resources as well including the Land Search and Rescue teams, and the Police, Army, Airforce, Navy etc.
From here they get in touch with the closest and most appropriate form of assistance. Obviously a large passenger ferry in distress is going to have very different rescue requirements to a small yacht carrying two people.
The helicopter company/ship/Coastguard station, make their own decisions then as to their ability to carry out the rescue. The main consideration will be the weather of course. No one wants to endanger the lives of the rescuers in the process of rescuing someone else. It will take time to get the helicopter or boat ready to launch with the appropriate equipment, but if the weather conditions permit then help could be on the way within an hour or so of setting off your EPIRB.
If you are offshore and you have been unable to communicate the nature of your distress, then it is possible that the NZDF Orion Aircraft could be launched. They may be able to drop off a life raft, and obtain VHF communications as they fly overhead.
If they lose your EPIRB position signal, they have special technology to calculate the likely drift of your boat. They also have medical advisors to provide advice should you have a medical situation, or to calculate the likelihood of someones survival in the water should they go overboard.
How about when we are sailing on the other side of the world? Well this is where it is very important to have an EPIRB that is coded to the same country as your vessel’s registration. If we set off our EPIRB in the Greek Islands, then both the RCCNZ and the agency responsible for rescues in the Greek Islands would be alerted. The RCCNZ would then get in touch with the local agency and provide them with the details on our EPIRB registration. You are able to update the details on the distress beacon database at any time and for free, so you can send them a message advising that you are currently sailing in the Med, and any other pertinent information that may assist in the case of a rescue.
If you are overdue on a passage and your Mum starts to worry? The RCCNZ are happy to help. They can check to see the last time you reported your position to Maritime Radio and if necessary launch a search mission. However without up to date information, it can be like finding a needle in a haystack, as in the case of the Nina yacht that was lost without trace in the Tasman Sea despite an intensive search.
We were so grateful for the time that we were given and how Dave & Conrad so patiently answered all our questions. What struck me most was what a professional organisation the RCCNZ is, and that if you do happen to get lost on land or sea, that your rescue is in excellent hands. If you are ever in Wellington and would like to visit it is well worth it.
From there we went over to visit Maritime Radio. Click here to read that post.
To learn more about EPIRBs & PLBs click here.
In an emergency contact RCCNZ (toll free): 0508 472 269 (0508 4 RCCNZ)
Call from outside of New Zealand:+64 4 577 8030
At sea, call the Maritime Operations Centre on VHF radio channel 16. They will pass your details onto RCCNZ.
To update your details in the beacon database New Zealand (toll free): 0800 406 111 or 0508 406 111
International: +64 4 577 8033