Facebook: one more Coast Guard tool

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The social networking site helps authorities track down a ‘missing’ boater, averting a costly search

A search-and-rescue controller saved Coast Guard Sector New England about $30,000 when he used the social networking site Facebook to track down a “lost” boater who wasn’t really lost, averting a full-scale SAR mission.

“I have used it in the past for other cases, and though it did not ultimately lead me to the boater in this case, it certainly helped,” says Paul Conner.

Conner is 47 years old, and he says Facebook is a “relatively new thing for someone like me.” But he says he has relatives who have joined the site. “So I became a member recently as well.”

The Coast Guard was notified Sunday evening, June 21, that a park ranger had found a vehicle and trailer with no boat on it at Cobscook State Park in Eastport, Maine. The vehicle was registered to Todd Richardson of Kennebunkport, Maine, but when authorities called his home telephone number, there was no answer, says Conner. The Coast Guard continued trying through the night, but still had not reached Richardson by the time Conner reported for duty the next day at 7:30 a.m.

“I began searching for Richardson online,” says Conner, who has been with the Coast Guard for 29 years. “I first ran his name on 411 and found the home number that we had gotten through his license, and then went to USSearch.com to locate more listings.”

The site displayed 19 listings, first among them the Kennebunkport number the Coast Guard had been calling. The listing showed Todd Richardson had a daughter named Morgan.

Conner decided to turn to Facebook. The site, however, cannot be accessed on Coast Guard computer systems, so Conner had to switch to the one stand-alone computer in the office that has a standard Internet connection. The Facebook page proved helpful. He found Morgan Richardson, which prompted him to go back to 411.com and search under her name, which then turned up a number that rang directly to the missing boater. It took Conner less than an hour to get Todd Richardson on the phone.

“He was not in any type of distress, and he was safe,” says Conner. “He had left the park on his 16-foot fishing boat and was at a campsite only a few miles away. Visibility had turned low on Sunday night, and Richardson was not able to easily navigate his way back, so he had decided to moor [at the campsite] for the night.”

Though Facebook didn’t provide a direct lead to Richardson, Conner says it was still a valuable time-saving tool. In fact, because of the experience in this case, Coast Guard Sector New England is discussing the pros and cons of making Facebook accessible on its computer systems.

“It’s currently being reviewed, and I think there’s value to it,” says Conner. “It’s just one more tool we can use to save lives.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue.