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Digital connectivity

Page updated: 29 December 2020

In 2017, we noted that New Zealanders are more digitally-connected than ever before. This trend has continued throught to 2020 and beyond. 

But what are the likely impacts of this increased connectivity for the Search and Rescue (SAR) sector?

High levels of digital connectivity offer a big opportunity for SAR

New Zealand, at least when it comes to the mainland, is one of the most digitally connected nations in the world. This is in contrast to the wider NZ Search and Rescue Region.

There are now 6.53 million mobile phone subscriptions in New Zealand for a population of just 4.77 million people (Hootsuite 2019). Mobile phone usage overall has increased to 92% as predicted. 

So, we are rapidly approaching a time where nearly 100% of New Zealanders on the mainland are constantly connected with a device or sensor of some sort.  

This presents significant potential for tracking, and thus finding, lost people more easily. As LandSAR have commented:

“It is reasonably apparent that GPS and GPS-enabled smartphones are reducing the incidence of people becoming truly ‘lost’ and phones (including better phone coverage) and PLBs [Personal Locator Beacons] are resulting in many SAROPs, that may have been previously protracted, being resolved quickly.”[i]

It is also possible that new technologies (and existing ones used more) will help people to self-locate and recover, reducing the demand for search and rescue.

[i] LandSAR (2017).  Feedback on the draft NZSAR environmental scan, received via email, 23 November 2017, 8.26AM.
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But having a mobile phone does not guarantee rescue

Of course, there is also a possible downside of the sense of always carrying a phone: over-confidence. 


A significant ongoing challenge remains ensuring that people don’t assume that simply having a cell phone will necessarily keep them safe in the outdoors. This is particularly important since phones can run out of battery charge or get out of range in the New Zealand outdoors.

Arange of NZSAR agencies have pointed to the risk of over-confidence that people have when venturing into the outdoors due to having technology. They suggested that often people assume that because they have a mobile phone, they are findable. This, of course, is not currently the case and can lead to over-confidence on the part of those going out onto the water or into the wilderness. 

As one participant in a workshop with the NZSAR sector put it:

“New Zealand terrain is not conducive to easy communication technology, especially in the wilderness areas, where there are many areas of poor communications, even for search.” [i]

Possibly worsening this risk is that it is also becoming increasingly affordable for a wider range of people to get into more and more remote places (e.g. due to greater accessibility and affordability of boats, jet skis and e-bikes for the general public). This issue may be worth considering further, for example, as a communications message to be included in future NZSAR sector prevention efforts.


[i] NZSAR workshop participant (anonymous), Workshop on 22 November 2017, Wellington, New Zealand.

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Good comms can help get the benefits and mitigate the risks

Since 2017, the information and guidance available to the public about what to carry to be locatable when outdoors appears to have become much clearer. 

A recent example was the national advertising campaign promoting VHF radio use, which Maritime NZ ran from December 2018 to February 2019.  The campaign clearly  encouraged boaties to carry and use a waterproof VHF marine radio, as the best means of calling for help in coastal areas (Maritime NZ 2019).

It may be that safety awareness campaigns are not going to be sufficient to ensure the public takes the right precautions.  The struggle to change the public’s behaviour is highlighted by the recent decline in the proportion of people carrying two water-proof ways to signal for help, despite Maritime NZ’s recent campaign and the research mentioned above which showed that relatively few trampers carried a beacon and weather-appropriate kit (despite that fact that a lot of clear information on what is needed is now available).

Happily, the SAR sector appears to already be on top of this issue.   For example, the ‘Benchmarking Preventative Activities (“BePA”) report takes a holistic look across preventative practices to improve public safety while outdoors across the whole sector.  It might also be useful to consider, alongside the “BePA” report something like a “BePA impact” report, that seeks to evaluate, or collate and report on evaluations, of how effective different kinds of prevention-oriented interventions are over time.

Other tools, like legislative change and enforcement action, can be useful parts of a regulator’s toolkit as well.  For example, a recent change in the domestic commercial sector since the last environmental scan saw float-free Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) become compulsory on commercial fishing vessels at the beginning of 2019.  The new rule was based on data and incident reporting that had “clearly showed a number of deaths could be attributed to inshore fishing boats sinking with manual EPIRBs on board that were unable to be deployed.” This change has already been identified as resulting in one successful rescue of crew (Maritime NZ 2019).

A further example was a collaboration over 2 years between Maritime NZ and 19 Otago harbourmasters in which harbourmaster and maritime officers worked together on random days throughout the summer to check boatie behaviour.  This included issuing infringement notices for boaties who were found to be speeding or who didn’t carry lifejackets (Maritime NZ 2019).

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