Tardy tramper blasted for chopper pickup

Last updated 12:00 09/02/2013

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An uninjured Nelson tramper has been slammed for using a rescue helicopter as a "taxi service", after authorities said he apparently activated his emergency locator beacon because he was running late.

Maritime New Zealand is considering what action to take over the unidentified 67-year-old, who was tramping at the headwaters of the Otoko River in South Westland when he activated the beacon about 4.30pm on Thursday.

Maritime NZ said it appeared that the man set off the beacon "simply because he was running late and wanted a ride to his car".

The operation wasted time and taxpayers' money, and potentially put others at risk, the agency said.

The Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand sent the Solid Energy rescue helicopter from Greymouth. It located the man, who authorities have not named, only to find he was uninjured.

Helicopter pilot Martin Shaw said the man told the crew he had significantly underestimated the amount of time needed to get out of the area, and was struggling with the challenging terrain.

Mr Shaw understood that the man was due out of the area either on Thursday or yesterday. He was an experienced tramper, who had written books on the subject.

Maritime NZ general manager of rescue and response services Nigel Clifford said that if the beacon was activated simply because the man was running late, it was entirely inappropriate, potentially dangerous, and a clear breach of the radio regulations that applied to emergency beacons.

"The incident tied up a helicopter for around 2 hours at a cost of around $10,000 to taxpayers and, more importantly, meant that the aircraft was unavailable for any other genuine emergency that may have arisen."

Mr Clifford said everyone going tramping should carry, and register, a beacon.

"While the decision to activate a beacon is one that only the person carrying it can make, it is not a decision that should be taken lightly.

"It is certainly not a taxi service."

Nelson Tramping Club president Lawrie Halkett said that if the tramper set off the beacon just because he was late, he should have to foot the bill for the helicopter.

Emergency locator beacons were for emergencies, not inconveniences, he said.

"People like that need to be made an example of."

Mr Halkett said that if trampers were late for appointments, or the walk was more challenging than anticipated, "you just take longer".

"Taxpayers can't afford to send choppers to the hills at a whim if someone's got an appointment to keep. I'm not at all sympathetic," he said.

"Things like that make me angry. We value the helicopter rescue service for our members. When it is required, it is hugely appreciated."

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Radio regulations permit the use of emergency distress beacons by general users, but state that they should be used only in an emergency.

Penalties for a misuse range from a formal warning to a prosecution with a maximum fine of $30,000.

- The Nelson Mail

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