Everyone has heard the story of the boy who cried wolf. In Search and Rescue, we have a very similar situation involving ELTs (Emergency Locator Transmitters).
The ELT is a wonderful device designed to provide a timely response to a critical, potentially life-threatening, situation. However, most ELT activations are false alarms, whereas most actual emergencies result in no activation of the ELT. As backward as this may seem, it is true. Most of the ELTs the Division of Aeronautics searches for are false alarms; at least one incident per week throughout Idaho.
According to the National Search and Rescue School in York Town, Virginia, “98% of ELT signals received by AFRCC (Air Force Rescue Coordination Center) are non-distress". They are the result of “hard landings, mishandling (falling off shelves, being tossed into car trunks), maintenance (battery problems), and vandalism". As search coordinators for the Division, we have found activated ELTs in the post office, UPS trucks traveling down the highway, freight trains traveling across the state, city dumps, snowmobiles and aircraft on trailers, as well as in airplanes in hangars, maintenance shops, and parked on the ramp. Occasionally, we will get a non-distress signal in an airborne aircraft.
There are three ways to automatically activate an aircraft search: by overdue flight plan, by a distressed family member or friend, and by activation of an ELT. Of course we all file and close our flight plans, don’t we? But, how many of us check our ELT for activation after landing or after we have maintenance performed on our aircraft or ELT? It only requires a few seconds to tune the aircraft radio to 121.5 and listen, or, in the case of a new ELT installation, check the panel mounted light (required by the latest TSO).
False alarms are a serious matter. They can mask real distress signals. The Division of Aeronautics treats every ELT incident as an emergency until it is determined to be otherwise and will initiate our search procedures. A search is always an emergency. Searching for false ELT signals depletes limited private funds, state funds (your Airman Registration fees), federal funds (Civil Air Patrol) and other resources reserved to search for missing or downed aircraft or airmen.
The FCC has their own rules and regulations: Subpart G, 47 CFR 80.311 and 80.332 provide for fines ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 for non-distress activation of an ELT, or knowingly transmitting a false or hoax distress signal.
It does not have to come to that. With your assistance, we can make this system work more efficiently by reducing false activations and ensuring that our limited resources are available for the real emergencies. Here are a few simple tips that will help prevent a false alarm:
1. On every flight, check your ELT as part of your pre-flight and post-flight duties (listen up on 121.5).
2. If your ELT is not installed in the aircraft, disconnect the battery (we have had ELTs go off in spite of the fact that the switch is in the OFF position).
3. After changing the battery and reinstalling the ELT in your aircraft, be sure to check for activation (See step 1 and remember, the FARs require you to change the battery again if it transmits for more than one hour).
4. If shipping your ELT, disconnect the battery and temporarily mark on the outside of the ELT that the battery has been disconnected.
5. When disposing of an old ELT, remove the battery.
Remember, a search is always an emergency, and an ELT signal automatically activates the statewide and national search and rescue systems.
Tim Henderson is the Director of Maintenance and a Search Coordinator for the Idaho Division of Aeronautics and Internet Entrepreneur. http://www.milliondollarpixelwebpage.com