Backcountry countdown

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Search & Rescue chief warns of dud beacon deadline – lives are at stake.

The Search & Rescue leader at Queenstown police is warning that old-style emergency locator beacons are on the verge of becoming obsolete.

From February 1, the old 121.5MHz distress beacons throughout New Zealand won’t trigger an alert or give a location – because world rescue authorities are switching to a new global satellite system.

Senior sergeant John Fookes is urging people heading for the great outdoors in the Wakatipu and Fiordland to change now to the more effective new 406MHz beacons.

“From the start of next month the old 121.5 beacons will no longer be monitored,” he says. “Effectively, they’ll be useless to anybody relying on them.”

Fookes also believes users should shell out for 406MHz locators fitted with super-accurate GPS technology.

At present, beacons both with and without this pinpoint feature are available, with the difference in cost working out at about $200.

“I would strongly urge people looking at buying to spend a little bit extra and get those with GPS chips included,” Fookes says.

“Locators without GPS can still leave a considerable margin for error as they’re just not as accurate or effective.

“It’s like the difference between searchers being given an exact address and the address of a suburb or even a group of suburbs to go to.”

Fookes adds: “When time is of the essence, particularly in winter conditions, this could literally mean the difference between life or death for anyone in trouble, especially when they are off the beaten track.”

There’s already a big local demand for the new hand-held GPS devices and manufacturers are working around the clock to fill orders from around NZ.

Hadyn Key, manager of R & R Sports in Shotover Street, says the store is waiting on stock.

“The makers just haven’t got enough of the GPS beacons to cope with the strong demand,” he explains. “We do have some on order but we’re not expecting them in for a few more weeks because of the backlog.”

To the rescue

New GPS distress beacons will be available for hire in Queenstown by the February 1 deadline.

The Southland Locator Beacon Charitable Trust has ordered 76 devices for rent at the Department of Conservation’s visitor centre in Shotover Street and the Glenorchy Information Centre.

They’ll cost $30 for the first week, $15 for a second week and $10 for a third.

“Our outlets in the Queenstown area won’t be providing the old 121.5 beacons after January 31,” says trust chairman John Munro. “We’re aiming for the new GPS equipment to be in place by that date.”