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Should the C.G. embrace mobile phones?

Eric Kunz and Todd Crocker are veterans of the U.S. marine electronics industry. Ask them about the boating public’s failure to embrace VHF digital selective calling technology and they turn the conversation to mobile phones.

Smart phones are capable of providing GPS-generated position data.

“The problem is that we’ve got a society of boaters now that have become very reliant on their cell phones and they look at it as the instrument to reach out and get help when they get in an emergency situation,” says Crocker, a radio specialist who served in executive roles at Standard Horizon and Uniden. “I think that is absolutely the worst thing they can be thinking.”

“When you take DSC and you try to explain it to people and tell them how to set it up, and tell them that they have to know an MMSI number to hail someone, they just don’t give a hoot. They’d rather just text over to their buddies,” says Kunz, product development manager for Furuno USA. “If they can’t do it on their cell phone, they are just not that interested. Even professional captains are now on their cell phones unless they’re out of range.”
Sea Tow, of course, is in the business of helping boaters before problems become life-threatening emergencies. Charlie Zaloom, the company’s vice president for business technology, says VHF calls for help are decreasing; 80 percent of boater service calls now come to Sea Tow from a mobile phone.
Hardly anyone believes a mobile phone is better than a VHF radio for summoning the Coast Guard in an emergency. They are simply not nearly as good, and as you read on you will see the reasons.

Coast Guard’s view
Soundings asked the Coast Guard to consider a heretical notion. Mobile phones have become a large part of everyday life, including recreational boating. Evidence suggests that the percentage of search-and-rescue calls from cellular devices will continue to trend upward. At the same time, cellular coverage of near-shore and inshore areas has improved significantly during the last few years, and that is where the vast majority of rescues take place. And, perhaps most significantly, nearly all smart phones contain position-locating information and most have GPS to provide accurate coordinates.
So we asked the Coast Guard: Why not have the Rescue 21 system incorporate cell phone calls the way 911 stations do? You could have an SAR app for smart phones that summons help from the nearest Coast Guard unit, with position data included. You could have cell phone manufacturers include a *505 function (looks like SOS) on the phone for manual emergency calls. Regarding hoaxes, you certainly would know who was making the call, or at least whose phone was being used.
The response came from Capt. David McBride, chief of the Coast Guard Office for Search and Rescue. In a written statement, McBride says, in part: “As for the ubiquitous presence of cell, unfortunately, that is something we are well aware of. Today’s mariner seems to have an overreliance upon these devices. In our discussions with the cell phone providers, they have acknowledged the fact that the cell phone was not physically designed to operate in the maritime environment (“cell phones and water don’t mix”). There has also been little testing done to validate the cell phone’s performance on the water. Cell phone usage offshore presents a number of challenges. One of the major ones is the inability to triangulate the signal to obtain a position.
“The Coast Guard has elected to use the established 911 system and the associated [public safety answering points] to route 911 calls that may emanate from vessels. They are treated on equal par as any other method of notification. …
“Although we acknowledge the use of cell phones, the Coast Guard promotes the International Maritime Organization’s Global Maritime Distress and Safety System devices as the preferred methods of notification. This includes maritime radios, beacons and man-overboard devices. Many of our rescue platforms are equipped with devices to either home in or locate the various devices. Current technology does not allow for the responder to locate the victim (using a phone), short of raising them again on the phone for vectors on scene. This is not as critical for the land rescues, as the environment usually remains static. Unfortunately, in the maritime environment the victims are constantly moving (drifting), and without the ability for the responder to locate them independently after arriving at that initial reported position, some may not be located.
“The Coast Guard continues to work with industry to try and improve the existing 911 system, especially with regards to streamlining the flow of accurate information to the responders. Due to the complexity of geo-sorting and the infrastructure required to run a 911 system, it is not in the Coast Guard’s or taxpayer’s interest to attempt to re-create a redundant system just for the Coast Guard to use.”
Coincidentally, as this story was being written, BoatU.S. announced a new smart phone app that essentially would do for the BoatU.S. towing fleet what Soundings was suggesting be done for Coast Guard watchstanders.
“The new BoatU.S. app can greatly improve towboat response times due to the accuracy of the GPS latitude and longitude technology built into these high-tech phones,” says Jerry Cardarelli, BoatU.S. vice president of towing services. “The moment you hit the app’s ‘Call Now for a Tow’ button, it automatically provides us with critical information before our crew even answers the phone.”
The Coast Guard has made a quality argument for not taking the BoatU.S. approach. No one can responsibly dispute which is the higher-quality device when it comes to calling for help in a life-or-death situation. A VHF radio is far better than a mobile phone. But what about quantity? On any given Sunday there may well be more mobile phones on the water than there are VHF radios — many more. Imagine five buddies fishing on a center console. That boat has five mobile phones on it. Anyone older than 12 is likely to have a phone, on land and sea.
Reminded by one of his generals that enemy tanks were of higher quality, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin famously shot back: “Rubbish! We have many more tanks than they do. And quantity has a quality all of its own.”
Such could be said about mobile phones on the water.

See related story:

- Boaters balk at DSC despite its capabilities

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue.