04/01/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/01/2014 05:59 EDT

False alarms add up to millions in search and rescue costs

False alarms are costing taxpayers a bundle in unnecessary search and rescue missions, and potentially tying up resources that would otherwise be available for legitimate emergencies.

CBC Investigates has learned that more than $47 million has been spent over seven years on needless deployment of aging military and coast guard aircraft.

At least $11 million of that amount relates to false alarms in Atlantic Canada.

And many of the false alarms could have been avoided by a change in Transport Canada regulations.

Old analog 121.5 emergency transmitter beacons are often the culprit.

While commercial planes and ships were ordered to go digital five years ago, upgrading to the more modern 406 beacons, small private aircraft were not.

And even when owners voluntarily replace the old transmitters, there can still be problems.

"They don't properly dispose of the old ones,” said Brian Bishop, the Newfoundland-based national vice-president for CASARA, a volunteer search and rescue group.

“And a lot of times the old ones end up on a landfill and are activated. That ties up the whole system. We have to try to go find it and get the whole thing shut off.”

A Transport Canada database outlines one false alarm that happened in May 2013.

Several high-level and low-level aircraft reported a 121.5 ELT beacon signal northwest of Gander.

The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Halifax dispatched a Hercules to check it out.

That Hercules narrowed the signal down to the airstrip in Springdale, but couldn’t land there because of its size.

Civilian CASARA searchers were called in, and the signal was ultimately tracked to a Piper Aztec on the ground.

Maintenance work on the plane had accidentally activated the beacon, and there was no emergency.

Many false alarms in Atlantic Canada

That case is only one of many costly 121.5 ELT false alarms in Atlantic Canada.

Through documents obtained by Access to Information, CBC Investigates has determined that between 2008 and 2012, there were about 80 incidents involving 121.5 ELT false alarms (see map above).

Anywhere from one to five Hercules or Cormorant aircraft were scrambled in each instance. Cormorants cost about $20,000 an hour to fly; Hercules cost about $10,000 an hour.

When the newer digital transmitters are activated, it is not hard to quickly track them down and identify the user. A radio or phone call to the owner can determine if there is a real emergency.

But because analog transmitters are no longer tracked by satellite, the only way to locate them is by sending someone to find the source of the signal — something that can often lead to costly wild goose chases.

Master Warrant Officer Greg Smit, a search and rescue technician with National Defence, says there is a simple solution: Transport Canada should make pilots switch to the registered beacons.

“It does cost taxpayers' money,” Smit said. “When there is one possible fix known, to all aviators in this country, and that is to buy a 406 beacon.”

The federal auditor general recommended last spring that Transport Canada make digital beacons like the 406s mandatory in more classes of aircraft.

But in an e-mail to CBC Investigates last month, Transport Canada indicated that there are “no plans at this time to expand the applicability in the Canadian Aviation Regulations." 

Cost is a concern for those who would have to foot the bill.

The Canadian Owners and Pilots Association says its members shouldn't have to shell out anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 to install the newer 406 beacons.

The association also indicated it doesn't believe the quality of the 406 is superior to 121.5s, maintaining that the newer beacon can be prone to failing when needed because it gets crushed, burned or sinks and doesn't work.

8,878 false alarms over 7 years nationally

Nationally, there were a total of 8,878 unnecessary searches reported over a seven-year period.

That includes all false alarms, not just those related to accidental emergency beacon activations.

The $47-million price tag is big bucks for a cash-strapped agency like the coast guard.

It could pay for retrofitting Canada's biggest icebreaker, and keep shuttered rescue substations operating, with millions more left over.