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A new tool for faster search and rescue

A Coast Guardsman spearheads use of the Recon, a rugged hand-held computer

A Coast Guardsman spearheads use of the Recon, a rugged hand-held computer

Something has gone very wrong. The chill of the ocean quickly penetrates your clothing as you try to orient yourself. Your life jacket is keeping you afloat, but the seas are rough. You’re miles from shore, and your brain races as you piece together what has happened and consider what might happen next. Most of the outcomes that flash through your mind aren’t good.

You hear the shouts of other people in the water around you. Someone yells to stay calm, that rescuers have been notified and will be coming. It’s a reassuring thought, but you know it will take time, and already you can feel numbness in your hands and feet.

At Coast Guard Station Oregon Inlet, the distress call such as this hypothetical one snaps our entire team into action. Gear is put on. Engines are fired. Information is accessed and applied. Sometimes, it’s a matter of ingenuity and courage versus natural forces, and the success or failure of our response may hinge on technology.

This type of situation is why search-and-rescue teams exist. A routine sportfishing trip becomes a potential disaster when marginal weather turns ugly, and a huge sneaker wave broadsides a 30-footer. With people in the water and conditions worsening, this could end badly.

Few jobs are more defined by results than search and rescue, and few present such a harsh set of environmental challenges. When a call comes in, time is our most precious commodity. Our quest to save time is what prompted me and my crew at Station Oregon Inlet to develop and implement an award-winning new technology that uses GPS capabilities, sophisticated mapping software and rugged hand-held computers.

Station Oregon Inlet is near Cape Hatteras, N.C. Our small-boat rescue station covers the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, several sounds and the general coastline extending up to the Virginia border. We’re responsible for a territory that extends 50 miles out to sea. Our station has two 47-foot Motor Lifeboats, a 21-foot rigid-hull inflatable and a 21-foot skiff. The water traffic in this area is largely sport anglers and commercial fisherman, with some pleasure boats. We perform marine law enforcement duties, but our most vital assignment is rescues.

As you might imagine, our searches rarely occur in optimal conditions. Between the typically bad weather and the emergency nature of the calls that come in, our SAR teams must perform under challenging conditions and extreme time pressure. Until recently a typical response would proceed like this: We get an emergency call with the last-known position of a boat. We process that information on our Coast Guard computer system, which produces a search pattern based on known position, weather conditions, currents and other factors. But that computer is at a remote station, so that station has to transmit the search pattern information back to Station Oregon Inlet so we can get it to our boat heading out.

This presents a dilemma: Do we hold the boat until we’ve gotten the search pattern waypoints off the fax, then literally run them out to the boat? Or do we send the boat out in the general direction of the last known location and then radio the information to the crew en route when we get it? Holding the boat wastes precious time, but if we send the crew out and then radio the data, that means someone on the boat has to transcribe it by hand before it can be applied to the navigational charts, which also takes time and increases the chance of human error.

Once the boat crew has the information, their search effort begins. Of our crew of four, one plots the search pattern legs on the charts, another uses a stopwatch to time the legs, and a third drives the boat. Only one of the crewmembers can focus entirely on scanning the water for the target.

It seemed to me we were almost missing the point of the exercise by doing it this way. We were out there searching but spending too much time looking at charts. Only one crewmember was actually looking for the target. And our initial communication was very difficult and time-consuming. I figured there must be a better way. We needed one tool that could combine navigation and communication.

I have a degree in computer technology from Indiana University, and I try to keep up on new developments. I knew that technology existed that could help us, but the challenge would be to make it fit our specific challenges.

I started by calling Memory-Map Inc., an independent software developer that produces detailed Pocket PC maps for both marine and land-based use. We already were using a version of its software, and when I told the company what I had in mind, it was very receptive. We started working together to adapt its products.

But the software wasn’t the entire solution; we needed a portable device for running it, one that would withstand the harsh conditions we encounter on search-and-rescue missions. We had been using an iPAQ, but we needed something more rugged. Remember, at a surfboat station, you’re talking about 47-foot boats going into 15-foot waves. I asked Memory-Map for help finding the right device.

Company president Richard Stephens follows the hand-held computer market closely, and he was familiar with products from Tripod Data Systems because many of his forestry clients were using the TDS Ranger, a rugged Windows CE .NET hand-held. He knew TDS had come out with a device called the Recon, an extremely rugged but lightweight hand-held computer that runs Windows Mobile software for Pocket PCs. He felt it had the functionality and performance we were looking for (TDS of Corvallis, Ore., is a wholly owned subsidiary of GPS pioneer Trimble Navigation).

We had tried several different rugged hand-helds ourselves, but the Recon was by far the best. It’s extremely rugged, lightweight (17 ounces) and costs less than other brands. (The Recon 400 with TerraGuide navigation software retails for about $1,800.) The device is built to military specs for drops, vibration and temperature, and the company says you can submerge it to one meter for up to 30 minutes. It’s also compatible with our satellite phones using the serial port, and we can put a GPS card into one of its CompactFlash slots. Once we chose the Recon, we worked with Memory-Map to put together its software and the Recon to create an information and communications tool optimized for our marine environment.

Memory-Map has a great software product, with Maptech navigation charts that are corrected weekly, meeting Coast Guard standards. But we needed to be able to use them to generate search patterns, integrating them with our system as well as GPS. It took some doing, but after several iterations and a lot of experimentation, we created a system that vastly improves our old search methods.

Now, with a Recon that’s GPS-equipped and connected to our satellite phone, our rescue boat can leave for the search area immediately once we receive an alert. Once our base station computer has generated a search pattern map, we e-mail it directly to the Recon on board. The Recon displays the precise search pattern on its 240-by-320-pixel color display.

The Recon also helps our crew use more resources for searching, and fewer for navigating. With the search pattern displayed on the Recon, one person can both steer and navigate the boat, leaving the other three available to look for the target out on the water. It’s a double improvement: Our crews don’t have to wait for the map when a rescue call goes out — which lets them reach the search area sooner — and with three sets of eyes looking for the target, we stand a better chance of finding people quickly.

In addition, our information flow is greatly enhanced by this new technology. Now the information we work from is readily available, and it’s current. If we don’t find anything after we’ve executed our original search, the base station can plug in updated weather information, create a new search pattern and e-mail it to the crew. In the past that process would involve radio, hand-written transfer, and entering into GPS — a 15- or 20-minute process. Now it takes a couple clicks and a few seconds.

Our new system is such an improvement that it recently won the Coast Guard’s Capt. Niels P. Thomsen Innovation Award, which recognizes individual members or teams who find ways to improve Coast Guard practices.

Going beyond rescues, our people here at Station Oregon Inlet also have found ways to use the Recon to improve other processes. For instance, we can save waypoints, track lines and routes to the Recon’s memory, and use them to update our own navigational charts. Here’s an example: Hurricane Isabel in September 2003 obliterated a lot of our references, and shoaling had shifted, changing the safe navigation routes. So we went out and carefully found a successful new route, programmed the new waypoints into the Recon, then downloaded the data to all our coxswains.

At this point, each qualified coxswain at our station has a Recon. As the non-rugged hand-helds we previously had purchased fail, we’ll replace them with Recons. At this point we’re being treated as a prototype station, tasked by the Coast Guard 5th District with perfecting this solution. After that, the plan is for the entire district to implement Recons, and eventually possibly all districts nationwide.

In the meantime our personnel at Station Oregon Inlet — and those people in danger whom we help — are thankful for the new system. That includes our officer-in-charge, Master Chief Steve Bielman, a 30-year Coast Guard search-and-rescue veteran.

“This is an absolutely huge step,” says Bielman, who worked in the days when searchers had only a compass and fathometer for navigation. “To be able to use a resource like this increases our efficiency tremendously. I have no doubt it will help us save lives.”

For more information on Recon, visit

Petty Officer Justin Schnute, 29, is a boatswain’s mate third class at Coast Guard Station Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. He came to active duty after volunteering from the reserves shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Before active duty, he worked as a sailing instructor in Duck, N.C.