Inside the CG’s new Rescue 21 system

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Modernization of communications system should close gaps in radio coverage, allow quicker action

The Coast Guard has pushed back from 2006 to 2007 the timetable for bringing its new Rescue 21 communications system online.

The long-overdue $611 million modernization of the system the Coast Guard uses to hear and respond to search-and-rescue calls is designed to close gaps in radio coverage and enable the agency to respond more quickly to boaters in distress.

Delays in software development at General Dynamics Decision Systems have set the timeline back, according to Kathryn Manzi, a Rescue 21 program analyst for the Coast Guard in Washington, D.C. The array of new communications equipment is supposed to work together as a fully integrated system, and that requires creating new and complex software. “We’ve had some glitches,” she says.

The Coast Guard had hoped its new VHF communications equipment would be in place in Atlantic City, N.J., and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore by this summer so it could test systems before installing the gear in the rest of the country. Manzi says she now expects the equipment to be in place at the two mid-Atlantic Coast Guard groups by fall. If it tests out, installation of the new system should “closely follow” in Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., and Seattle-Port Angeles, Wash. Manzi says the timetable for ramping up the system so it is fully operational nationwide is now 2007.

Rescue 21 is a VHF-FM based system. Boaters in distress alert the Coast Guard to their situation using a VHF radio, and Coast Guard watchstanders answer the calls on VHF. The watchstanders talk to the boaters and gather information about the nature of the emergency and the boat’s location, so they can evaluate the situation and send help. The Coast Guard stresses that the best way for boaters on lakes, rivers and coastal waters to communicate with watchstanders still is VHF radio; no boater should leave home without one.

“VHF-FM radio is best for your primary emergency communications,” says Manzi. That’s why the Guard is spending $611 million to upgrade its own VHF system. However, even as it does that it is looking at new ways to patch alternative distress communications — calls from cell phone users and commercial satellite-based messaging services — to its command centers. Still a novelty, the commercial messaging services — similar to OnStar service for cars — could proliferate quickly, says Lt. Cmdr. Jim Olive, a Coast Guard search and rescue analyst. “Our fear is that as these types of messaging services crop up out there, they don’t know they need to be talking to us,” Olive says.

VHF radio remains the standard and preferred method of inshore communications with the Coast Guard, and with digital selective calling (or DSC) coming online it should become even better than the traditional VHF that boaters know. Once Rescue 21 is in place, watchstanders will be able to field DSC-VHF calls and use a computer to automatically identify a boat and its location from digitized information imbedded in the DSC distress signal. That should assist in a quicker rescue without so much time, money and effort expended on the search.

The Coast Guard, however, acknowledges that more and more boaters are calling for help through third parties using non-VHF gear, including cell phones that route emergency calls through the 911 operator and commercial telemetry units like Volvo’s SeaKey, a satellite-based system that sends distress calls to a call center in Greensboro, N.C.

The SeaKey messaging service provides emergency signaling, location tracking, theft detection, systems monitoring, and concierge services for member boaters. Genmar introduced SeaKey as an option on most of its 2003 models under its First Mate Plus program, now called SeaKey. SeaKey is a standard feature on all 2004 Genmar boats 26 feet and larger, says Jan Hellaker, Volvo chief telemetrics officer. He says 30 boatbuilders now offer SeaKey, and he says the service has more than 6,000 subscribers.

Sea Tow International, the Southold, N.Y., tow and marine assistance firm with franchisees around the country, also plans to introduce two satellite-based marine messaging and emergency alert systems: Sea Smart and Moonbeamer, says chairman and CEO Joe Frohnhoefer.

Sea Smart enables Sea Tow to monitor speed, direction and location of boats equipped with a Sea Smart unit. Using a Palm Pilot, skippers can send a mayday to Sea Tow at the push of a button or request a tow or other assistance. They will also be able to send

e-mail to Sea Tow using the Palm Pilot keyboard and make voice-over-Internet phone calls from anywhere in the world through Sea Tow’s monitoring center in Southold, Frohnhoefer says. He expects Sea Smart to link up with Rescue 21 so maydays will go directly to the Coast Guard, as well.

Moonbeamer will offer tracking and messaging capabilities to a marina or fleet operator, who can use the system to track many boats simultaneously and field mayday and assistance calls from them using a satellite dish to receive and send messages. Frohnhoefer says Moonbeamer will be a real help to marinas — and boaters — who operate in remote regions where rescue resources are spread thin.

The Coast Guard wants to be sure that when SeaKey, Sea Smart or other commercial service receives a distress message by satellite at its call center, information about that distress is complete and quickly forwarded to the appropriate Coast Guard command, Olive says.

Paul Dierksen, Volvo vice president of marketing and strategic business development, says SeaKey and the Coast Guard are working closely so the agency can launch a quick response to SeaKey distress calls. SeaKey operates this way: A boater in distress hits an SOS button on the SeaKey unit. The distress signal — with the boat’s identity and GPS location embedded in it — goes to a satellite, which relays it to the call center. The operator at the call center attempts to contact the boat by cell or satellite phone to gather more information about the emergency, then passes that information on to the appropriate Coast Guard command center for response.

Olive says the commercial call center computer automatically tells the operator which Coast Guard command center to contact for a response. The command center receives all pertinent information about the distress — boat name, description and location, and type of emergency, as well as the boat owner’s name, home address and telephone number — via e-mail or an e-mail link to the message center database.

“Our agreement with the Coast Guard is they will immediately send help, even if we can’t communicate with the boater,” Dierksen says.

Volvo’s Hellaker says the system has proven itself. In July, a yacht went aground on a Bahamas reef and began to take on water. The skipper of a passing boat used a SeaKey unit to alert the call center, which called both the Coast Guard and Bahamian authorities to send help.

“That’s real-life proof that it works,” Hellaker says.

Dierksen says SeaKey has some advantages over VHF. Though the program is restricted to Alaska, the Caribbean and 200 to 300 miles off the continental United States, SeaKey units can transmit a distress signal from hundreds of miles offshore — VHF’s range is typically about 50 miles — and it gives the Coast Guard an exact latitude-longitude location for the distressed boat. “For them, there are cost savings in the amount of time, manpower and equipment they use in mounting these search operations,” Dierksen says. For the Coast Guard, responding to SeaKey is almost like responding to an EPIRB.

Dierksen says the Coast Guard has been “receptive” to SeaKey. “We’ll take any accurate form of notification we can get,” Olive says.

The Coast Guard is much less receptive to distressed boaters using cell phones to dial the 911 operator for help, though it realizes many boaters do. “The reality is a lot of recreational boaters don’t have radios,” says Thomas Amerson, manager of a Coast Guard study on cell phone use to report boating emergencies. “They don’t use them.”

They use cell phones instead, and these have some distinct disadvantages. Cell phone range is limited, and they are likely to fade out and disconnect in mid-transmission. They communicate point-to-point, while VHF radio transmits a general broadcast that anyone in range can hear and respond to. Cell phones connect the distressed boater to a 911 operator who isn’t trained to ask the right questions about a maritime emergency; the call must be transferred from the 911 operator to the appropriate Coast Guard command. And finally, unless the cell phone network and the user’s cell phone are equipped with GPS capabilities, the 911 operator cannot determine where the cell phone signal is coming from. A Coast Guard watchstander can use a radio direction finder to locate a boat if it receives a VHF call.

This summer in New England, Amerson, a researcher at the Coast Guard Research and Development Center in Groton, Conn., was testing equipment that enables a 911 operator to push a button and patch a boater’s cell phone call through to a Coast Guard station so the watchstander can talk to the boater.

“This is not designed to encourage more use of cells to call for search-and-rescue assistance,” Amerson says. Rather, it is to find more efficient ways to route those calls to the Coast Guard station.

Amerson says at midsummer cell phone calls from boaters to 911 operators in Massachusetts and Rhode Island were being patched through to watchstanders at Coast Guard Group Woods Hole with good results. In one case, a motorist crossing the bridge to Newport, R.I., saw two sailors in the water with their capsized boat and used a cell phone to report the incident to the 911 operator, who patched the call through to the Coast Guard for a quick rescue.

“Group Woods Hole has been very pleased with how this has turned out,” Amerson says.

This is the updated schedule for bringing Rescue 21 online. Fiscal 2004: Atlantic City; Maryland’s Eastern Shore; St. Petersburg, Fla.; Mobile, Ala.; Seattle and Port Angeles, Wash. Fiscal 2005: Long Island Sound, Moriches and New York, N.Y.; Philadelphia; Baltimore; Hampton Roads, Va.; Mayport, Miami and Key West, Fla.; New Orleans; Corpus Christi, Texas; Astoria and Portland, Ore.; North Bend, Ind. Fiscal 2006: Southwest Harbor and Portland, Maine; Boston and Woods Hole, Mass.; Cape Hatteras and Fort Macon, N.C.; Charleston, S.C.; Humboldt Bay, San Francisco and Los Angeles/Long Beach, Calif.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Detroit and Grand Haven, Mich. Fiscal 2007: Milwaukee; Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.; the Caribbean; Alaska; Hawaii; Guam; and the Western rivers.

The Coast Guard’s Manzi says boaters who want the most safety benefit from this new search-and-rescue communications system should have a new-generation VHF radio with DSC. Boaters will reap the benefits of DSC only if they integrate it with GPS, so the unit can report the boat’s location in an emergency. Boaters also must register for a Marine Mobile Service Identity number through BoatU.S. or the Federal Communications Commission, so the Coast Guard can identify the vessel from that number when they receive a digitized distress signal from its VHF.

“Otherwise it’s just an uncorrelated mayday,” Manzi says.