A farmer and his mate go out hunting out in the back blocks where there’s no cellphone reception. Time slips away and late in the day they shoot a deer down in a gully. By the time they get it out, it’s dark.
Back at the farm’s homestead, the farmer’s wife is fretting. He’s not usually late home from hunting trips. Has the ute rolled? Has there been some other sort of accident?
Finally, she puts the kids in the car and heads down farm tracks to try and find out what’s happened.
Variations on this scenario unfold all over New Zealand. S*** happens, and as every Federated Farmers Connectivity Survey highlights, cellphone coverage in many rural districts is patchy, and in places non-existent.
Harry Stevenson, helicopter pilot and Life Flight Westpac Rescue Head of Service Operations, and Ewan Kelsall, Federated Farmers Senior Policy Advisor and experienced hunter, agree there are two key actions that can head off much of the angst that can arise when usual schedules come adrift – or when there is a real emergency: Have a plan for when something unforeseen arises, and make sure everyone involved knows it. Carry a locator beacon (ideally one of the devices that can send pre-set notifications, or even allow 2-way text/email communication, when there’s no cell coverage).
Ewan was the ‘mate’ in the years-ago-now scenario that opened this article. He points out that the wife who felt forced to set out in the dark with the kids was in more danger than they were.
“What is the plan when someone doesn’t turn up when they’re supposed to? Who should be notified? What’s the best means of getting to that remote location? Who can be called in to help?
“In situations like this you’re already a stressed mess,” Ewan says. “If there’s an agreed plan, and people know their role, it can go so much easier.”
When commercial helicopters head off for operations in wilderness areas, everyone on board gets instructions, Ewan says. “If we crash, you do this; this is the button that turns the engine off; there’s an axe under here that you can use to chop people out; there’s the fire extinguisher….
“That’s a bit of a dramatic example, but everyone in the helicopter knows what to do. On farm, if there’s a plan, it can mean people aren’t rushing off in different directions and potentially causing more issues.”
Harry, who has been with Life Flight since 2005, says that while they’re based in central Wellington, most missions head out into the hinterland. “Really, at least half the time we’re providing a service to rural people and it’s great to make a difference for them.
“Just in the time I’ve been flying, I’ve seen safety messages get taken up a lot more on farm. You see far more people on quad bikes wearing helmets now; that would have been virtually unheard of 20 years ago,” Harry says.
But there are other ways farmers and their staff can make things easier when there’s an emergency. Carrying a personal locator beacon (PLB) in remote areas is a great start. They can be triggered in emergencies, the exact location can be entered into the helicopter GPS system “and we can fly straight to you”.
Cellphones, if there is coverage, are very handy too. But the longitude and latitude co-ordinates that can be obtained from cellphones are sometimes a bit of a red herring because they can be half a kilometre out, depending on what the cellphone coverage is like, Harry says.
When you dial ‘111’ in an emergency in a remote location, the ambulance service may urge you to keep the line free because the chopper pilot may want to call you when they’re a couple of minutes out from your location.
“When you’re on the ground it’s generally easy to spot the helicopter but from the air you’re looking at a lot of terrain. It can be quite difficult for us to spot where you are. If we can talk to you on your cellphone it can help,” Harry says.
“It always seems that when people get into trouble they’re on the last 10% of their battery!”
So make other calls to the farmhouse or staff brief and save the Instagram photos for later.
While standard PLBs are excellent for ‘sending up the balloon’ in emergencies, it’s worth weighing up the extra options that some devices – such as Spot, Garmin and ZOLEO – offer.
They may have buttons that will trigger pre-set messages to home base, such as ‘all fine’ or ‘all fine but running late’. They can give peace of mind to partners back home, or other farm staff.
Harry and fellow pilots file flight plans for every trip, including where they are going and when they expect to get there. “Base also expects to hear from us by a certain time, usually every half hour.”
That level of check-in is overkill for farms, but farmers’ ‘flight plans’ should at least include letting who needs to know what part of the farm they’re heading to, and how long they expect to be. In the absence of cell coverage, if they have a capable device, they could also pre-arrange to send ‘all’s well’ messages, say, mid-morning and mid afternoon if they’re coming home for lunch.
“Think of it this way,” Harry says. “A farmer leaves after lunch, and isn’t due back until 5.30pm. By the time anyone starts to worry he could have been trapped under a quad bike for five or six hours.”
Sending ‘all okay’ messages at pre-arranged times can be a life-saver. The onus is not just on the person out in the back blocks but also the person receiving the messages to get the habit established.
Harry has encountered situations where a farmer who has had an accident has hesitated to dial ‘111’.
“Farmers tend to be stoic and self-sufficient and if they don’t actually have a good way of making contact with family or staff for help, they’re tempted to stay put and wait for someone to miss them, or find a way of driving out on the quad with a broken leg or whatever.”
They shouldn’t, Harry says. “We live in a country that has got these services and we should use them.”
Trigger the locator beacon, or if you have cellphone bars dial 111 and leave it to the ambulance communications centre to “triage” the situation and decide whether an ambulance or helicopter is needed.
“Even some farmhouses can be far enough away from town to warrant a helicopter call out if someone is having chest pains.”