False distress signals from small recreational boats and aircraft are sending Canada's stretched search and rescue operators on hundreds of wild goose chases each year at a cost of millions of dollars to the taxpayer.

The culprits are aging emergency beacons that experts say should have been phased out years ago.

Federal search and rescue operators have spent at least $47 million since 2007 responding to avoidable false alarms, according to a CBC News analysis of data obtained from the Canadian Armed Forces and the Canadian Coast Guard through the federal Access to Information Act.

The Armed Forces, the coast guard and Transport Canada share lead responsibility for search and rescue.

Air Force Rescue Training

A Canadian Forces Buffalo aircraft like this one was dispatched from Comox base on Vancouver Island for a search that ultimately ended with a beacon found in a dumpster. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

According to critics, these false alarms are putting an extra strain on aging aircraft that cost more and more to operate each year and are placing the lives of crews in danger, especially for futile searches in rough conditions that can take anywhere from minutes to several hours.

Canada's auditor general last year found that more than 90 per cent all alerts from emergency beacons between 2009 and 2012 were false.

The main reason is the use of outdated 121.5-MHz beacons, Master Warrant Officer Greg Smit, search and rescue technician with Canadian Joint Operations Command, told CBC News in an interview.

"I monitor the case logs daily for our Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre. [When the 121.5 goes off accidentally], you’re talking about launching a Canadian Forces asset.”

The beacons go off accidentally during routine landings, when they’re taken out for regular maintenance, are bumped accidentally or discarded.

When the country’s three search-and-rescue centres receive an alert from a 121.5-MHz beacon, Smit said, it’s difficult to determine whether it’s the real thing, so there’s no choice but to launch aircraft and vessels.

Launching larger search and rescue aircraft can be costly. According to National Defence figures, it costs $13,206 an hour in fuel, maintenance and personnel costs to fly a Buffalo search and rescue plane. For a Cormorant helicopter, it’s $22,196 an hour.

"The Canadian taxpayers are putting out millions of dollars,” said Smit. “But more importantly, we’re taking away a primary asset like an ambulance or a fire truck that could have responded to an actual emergency. And now that asset is not available.

"That to me is the shame in all of this.”

That view is echoed by Steven Lett, who heads Cospas-Sarsat, the Montreal-based intergovernmental co-operative that uses satellites to locate emergency beacons activated by aircraft, ships and backcountry hikers in distress.

“What is most important to us is whether a life is lost because the resource is not available," Lett said. “It’s always the risk with the false alarm, and I would insist it’s the biggest risk. The financial costs are unfortunate, but biggest risk is that you lose a life.”

Wild goose chase

Transport Canada is responsible for regulating distress beacons. So far, it has allowed recreational boats and planes to continue using the older beacons.

Last December, the search and rescue centre in Victoria dispatched a Buffalo plane and Cormorant helicopter from CFB Comox to track down a distress signal from a 121.5 beacon. The planes tracked the distress signal near the Sechelt Airport but poor weather made it impossible to land and get a closer look.

The next morning, a four-person crew with the Civil Aviation Search Rescue Association continued the search. The distress signal led them to a garbage dump.

It turned out a boat owner had removed the beacon and thrown it away without deactivating it, search and rescue volunteer Dave Qualley told CBC News.

Qualley, who was part of that search crew, filmed the incident and posted it on YouTube as a warning about the problems false alarms can cause.

During the search, the Buffalo and Cormorant were in the air for about an hour at a cost of $40,740. The volunteers billed $300 for their expenses for a total of $41,040.

“It’s frustrating,” said Qualley. “When [boaters and pilots] move the [121.5 beacons] for servicing, they’re not always familiar with the switch positions that have a little pin that disables the beacon for transport.”

As far as Smit and Lett are concerned, the answer is simple: switch to a new-generation digital 406-MHz beacon.

Unlike the analog 121.5, the 406 emits a signal that allows search crews to determine whether an alarm is real before dispatching aircraft.

Transport Canada has twice in the past decade warned about false alarms caused by the 121.5 beacons.

The department’s preferred choice in 2007 was to make the 406 beacon mandatory for all aircraft and vessels.

The 406 beacons are mandatory for commercial vessels and aircraft, but not for recreational vessels and aircraft, in large part because of resistance from a recreational owners lobby group.

Kevin Psutka, president of the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association, said the 406 beacons typically cost about $3,000 plus installation, and the collective cost to his members would be as high as $100 million.

In an interview, Power & Politics host Evan Solomon asked Psutka whether taxpayers should foot the bill to respond to false alerts.

“I’ll answer that with a question,” said Psutka. “Should the person who decides to go across the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub, and have to be rescued halfway across the ocean by our maritime search and rescue resources, have to pay for that rescue?”

Transport Canada urged to act

Six federal departments share responsibility for search and rescue, in conjunction with provincial and municipal governments and with the support of the private sector and thousands of volunteers. As a whole, this network is called the National Search and Rescue Program.

At the federal level, National Defence is responsible for dispatching aircraft and co-ordinating aerial searches. There are three search and rescue centres that handle more than 15,000 calls each year, including hundreds of false alerts.

Last year, the auditor general published a review of Canada’s search and rescue capabilities.

“We found that the Canadian Forces now analyzes the causes of false alerts,” observed the report. “The Canadian Forces informed us that the number of air and marine false alerts from 2009 to 2012 was about 2,800 out of a total of 3,000 alerts, taking time and resources to resolve.”

The auditor general suggested Transport Canada accept the long-standing recommendation to make the 406 beacon mandatory for all aircraft.

In an emailed response to CBC News, the department said it has consulted on the issue but still has no plans to do that.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission is moving toward making the digital beacons mandatory.

"Continued use of 121.5 MHz-only ELT technology increases the risk and cost of search and rescue operations,” the commission heard in a submission by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.