What happens when a club PLB is set off?

In October, we ran an incident simulation exercise to test out how the club’s incident management processes work in practice. Every time you go on a trip, the trip leader asks for your emergency contact details, and in return sends you the details of the club’s weekend emergency contact person. Most of the time (thankfully) no one needs to use this information, but when it is needed, it certainly helps things along.

For the simulation exercise, everyone took on a role, with most people taking part in line with their current club volunteer role. We set things up so that the weekend emergency contact (WEC) got a call from the Rescue Coordination Centre (RCCNZ) asking for any details of trips out that weekend due to a potential beacon (PLB) activation. We let things play out from there and here’s what happened.

The WEC was able to pass on the information in the intentions sheets that the trip leaders had provided in advance. This is crucial for RCCNZ when launching a search or rescue mission- they’ll still attempt to come and find you without it, but they’ll be much better informed about who, what and where they’re looking if the WEC is able to supply the information on the intentions sheet.  

The WEC also alerted the Chief Guide and the Club Emergency Contacts Coordinator to the fact that there was an incident arising. These people, and others involved with the club, can offer support to the WEC, especially if the search and rescue extends over more than a day or if they start to become inundated with calls from the worried nearest and dearest of those who haven’t returned from their tramp on time.

Word of the spoof incident spread quickly, and several people taking part in the exercise were called by journalists wanting a story, or by concerned/nosy associates. We have guidelines for club volunteers on how to deal with these types of inquiries, with avoiding speculation being the most important piece of advice in these. Despite the extended efforts of the role-playing journalists and associates, our club officers didn’t fall for any of the prying questions – well done team!

Over the course of three hours the incident played out and by our imaginary time of 10am on Monday morning the WEC and others involved were informed that the party had been located and were being helicoptered to safety. This was great news for all of us and we celebrated over coffee and cake courtesy of WTMC while we debriefed.

Here’s the key lessons from the exercise:

  1. INTENTIONS SHEETS ARE GOLD. It’s super important for the trip leader to provide a completed intentions sheet to the weekend emergency contact in advance of the trip. Same goes for trip participants providing relevant medical details and emergency contact information to the trip leader so they can complete this intentions sheet.
  2. THE WEEKEND EMERGENCY CONTACT WILL NEED SUPPORT. Situations can escalate and news travels fast so keeping track of everything involved can become overwhelming for the weekend emergency contact. Establishing a support team from club officers available at the time (some of us will likely be out tramping) is a crucial step in helping manage an incident.  
  3. TRAMPING ISN’T THE ONLY RISKY THING WE DO. The intentions system doesn’t cover all club-related activities. The exercise highlighted that while ‘out safe’ means the tramping part of the trip is over, there is often still a long drive back to Wellington. So this is a good opportunity to remind everyone of the WTMC Driver Protocols.  

Thanks to Julian, Tash, Mark, Matt, Aimee, Heather, Sumudu, Illona, Claire, Rowena and Pete for taking part on the day or offering advice and support for the planning of this exercise. We aim to repeat this type of exercise on a two-yearly basis.

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