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False Alarms

Posted on January 19, 2023 by Peter Rogers

Everybody has heard the story of the boy that cried wolf. In Search and Rescue, we have a very similar situation involving ELTs (Emergency Locator Transmitters).

The ELT is a excellent device designed to provide a timely response to a critical, potentially life-threatening, situation. But most ELT activations are false alarms, whereas many actual emergencies lead to no activation of the ELT. As backward as this may seem, it's true. The majority of the ELTs the Division of Aeronautics searches for are false alarms; at least one episode weekly throughout Idaho.

According to the National Search and Rescue School in York Town, Virginia,"98 percent of ELT signals obtained by AFRCC (Air Force Rescue Coordination Center) are non-distress". They are caused by"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 at the post office, UPS trucks traveling down the highway, freight trains traveling across the state, town dumps, snowmobiles and aircraft on trailers, as well as in airplanes in hangars, maintenance shops, and parked on the ramp. Occasionally, we'll find a non-distress signal in an airborne aircraft.

There are 3 ways to automatically activate an aircraft search: by overdue flight plan, by a distressed family member or friend, and by activation of an ELT. Obviously we all file and shut our flight plans, do not we? But, how many people check our ELT for activation after landing or after we have maintenance performed on our aircraft or ELT? It only requires a couple of seconds to listen to the aircraft radio to 121.5 and listen, or, in the case of a new ELT installation, check the panel mounted lighting (demanded by the latest TSO).

False alarms are a serious matter. They can mask real distress signals. The Division of Aeronautics treats every ELT episode as an emergency until it's determined to be otherwise and will initiate our search processes. 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 allowed to search for lost or downed aircraft or airmen.

The FCC has their own rules and regulations: Subpart G, 47 CFR 80.311 and 80.332 provide for penalties ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 for non-distress activation of an ELT, or intentionally transmitting a false or hoax distress signal.

It doesn't have to come to that. With your assistance, we can make this system work better by reducing false activations and ensuring that our limited resources are available for the real crises. Here are a few simple tips that will help prevent a false alarm:

1. On each flight, check your ELT as part of your pre-flight and post-flight responsibilities (listen up on 121.5).

2. If your ELT isn't installed in the aircraft, disconnect the battery (we have had ELTs go off despite the fact that the change is in the OFF position).

3. After changing the battery and reinstalling the ELT on your aircraft, make certain to check for activation (See step 1 and bear in mind, the FARs require that you change the battery again when it transmits for more than 1 hour).

4. If sending your ELT, disconnect the battery and temporarily mark on the exterior of the ELT that the battery has been disconnected.

5. When disposing of an old ELT, remove the battery.

Recall a search is always an emergency, and an ELT signal automatically activates the statewide and national search and rescue systems.