All the wrong signals

Andrew Robinson
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Recent spate of false alarms troubles SAR community


If a signal at sea indicates there’s trouble on the water, the Canadian Coast Guard, by law, is required to respond.

But when it’s a false alarm, those resources can be better used elsewhere.

“I liken it to a local fire department responding to an accidentally set grass fire or dumpster fire, and at the same time, there’s a structural fire at the other end of town,” said Neil Peet, acting regional supervisor for maritime search and rescue.

“That truck is either going to be unvailable or late to get there.”

Three separate incidents last weekend highlight how such cases unnecessarily put a lot of resources in play.

On Saturday, two incidents were reported near Random Sound in Trinity Bay, with another reported Sunday near Western Bay in Conception Bay.

One case involved the use of a paper lantern, whose light illuminates the air, glowing orange or red as it drifts through the sky, much like a marine parachute distress flare.

Another involved what is believed to be fireworks, while the cause of the third false alarm is unconfirmed, according to Peet.

Cormorant helicopters from the 103 Search and Rescue Squadron in Gander, Canadian Coast Guard ships and the RCMP were among those involved in responding to the supposed flare sightings.

Although he did not have numbers at his fingertips, Peet, who works out of the Maritime Rescue Sub-Centre in St. John’s, said false activations are up this year.

He attributes the bump to a strong tourism season and a possible increase in the number of community events taking place across the province.

Peet said with so many community events happening in the summer months, it’s inevitable that fireworks will be in use — New Year’s Eve is also a busy time for the sub-centre.

However, he said if the sub-centre cannot guarantee that a signal was created by a source other than a distress flare, it is forced to deploy resources.

“When we have to launch coast guard ships, Canadian Forces aircraft and the RCMP to investigate a flare sighting, those assets may not be available should a real distress occur,” he said.

“Not only is it going to cost money to the taxpayers of Canada to deploy these assets, it could potentially cost lives.”

Another common cause of false alarms involves the misuse of marine parachute distress flares, typically found on recreational and commercial vessels.

Those flares are valid for four years, and Peet said some people choose to shoot them off once they expire rather than properly dispose of them through the fire department, police or the coast guard.

“Unfortunately, any use of a marine distress flare or anything that resembles a distress flare is deemed to be an activation. Therefore, it activates the search and rescue system.”

Aside from properly disposing of expired flares, Peet said people should avoid using fireworks near tidal waters. Otherwise, they should contact the RCMP (1-800-709-RCMP) or the Canadian Coast Guard’s marine distress line (1-800-563-2444).

“Call us before you start and call when you finish. At least then we’ll know if we get a flare sighting in your area at that particular time, we’ll know it’s related to your fireworks display.”

Organizations: Canadian Coast Guard, RCMP, Maritime Rescue Sub-Centre Canadian Forces

Geographic location: Trinity Bay, Western Bay, Gander Canada

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