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A close look at search and rescue

An event that provided insight into how land and sea rescues are coordinated, along with some of the equipment that might just save your life if you find yourself lost in the great outdoors, was held at the Trust Lands Trust [TRT] building in Masterton on Wednesday night.

Speaking at the event were Chris Wilson, a senior search and rescue officer for the New Zealand Rescue Coordination Centre [RCCNZ], Wairarapa Police’s Tony Matherson, and Wairarapa Rescue Trust [WRT] trustee Andrew Croskery.

Wilson spoke about the process involved in coordinating a rescue and the vast geographical area that is covered by RCCNZ.

“Our search and rescue coverage spans 30 million square kilometres – one of the largest search and rescue areas in the world,” she said.

“This area extends from 5km south of the equator to the south pole, and halfway to Australia and halfway to Chile.”

To put illustrate this, an image was projected that showed the outline of RCCNZ’s coverage area superimposed over a map of North America and South America, indicating that most of the two continents can fit inside the territory RCCNZ is responsible for, with room to spare.

Every year RCCNZ responds to about 1500 incidents around New Zealand, and Wilson shared her view that Wairarapa currently operates one of the best search and rescue services in the county.

The main piece of equipment that saves lives is a personal locator beacon [PLB], which is carried by all sensible hikers and sailors, and can be hired from TRT for just $15 per day.

When a PLB is activated, a satellite signal is beamed to RCCNZ headquarters in Avalon, Wellington.

From there, RCCNZ will task the rescue to local police, who – in the case of this region – may call on the services of Wairarapa Land Search and Rescue, Riversdale Surf Life Saving, the Westpac Rescue Helicopter, or any other agency that may be able to assist.

“Police work with the appropriate groups to conduct the rescue,” Matherson said.

“For sea rescues, we often rely on a helicopter to help find the person.”

Matherson noted that calling in an air resource costs up to $12,000 an hour, and if you want the police NH90 helicopter, it’s more like $30,000 per hour.

“Because the taxpayer pays the price, we will have to talk to a commissioning officer in Wellington if we want a helicopter,” he said.

“When there is a distress call at sea, we will always send one out because the chances of survival are less on the water than they are on land; we also don’t have a coast guard in Wairarapa so a boat might take some time to arrive.

“We do get help from local fishermen, and if it’s close to shore, we will ask Riversdale Surf Lifesaving Club to help out.”

Croskery also talked about the work that WRT does in funding equipment for search and rescue organisations, and noted that “We recently installed some new automatic external defibrillators as well as funding a new boat motor for Riversdale Surf Lifesaving Club.”

Some of this equipment was on display inside the building, including night vision binoculars that can link up to a screen inside a rescue helicopter and a new one-wheeled stretcher for rugged terrain that can be operated with two people instead of the eight previously needed to lift an old-style stretcher.

Freddie Wilkie
Freddie Wilkie
Freddie Wilkie is a journalist at the Wairarapa Times-Age; originally moving from Christchurch, he is interested in housing stories as well as covering emergencies and crime.

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