New SAR tool is getting good grades

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A Coast Guard helicopter crew this summer rescued two teens off Houston with the help of its new Rescue 21 communications system and radio direction finder, which gave rescuers a line of bearing to the source of the mayday.

The teens were south of Sabine Pass when their 21-foot skiff started taking on water and sank the morning of Aug. 10. A Coast Guard MH-65C helicopter crew dispatched from Houston quickly located the young men and hoisted them from the water.

“The direction-finding capability on Rescue 21 was 100 percent pertinent to the rescue of these two men,” says Zack Edwards, a command center controller at Sector Houston-Galveston, in a Coast Guard account of the rescue.

Although far over budget and way behind schedule, Rescue 21 is proving a useful tool in helping “take the search out of search and rescue,” says Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara, who gave testimony Sept. 30 before the House Transportation Committee’s Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee. “We’ve been very impressed with Rescue 21,” she says.

Rescue 21 offers “better, clearer communications” all-around, says Brice-O’Hara. A new coastal network of towers helps reduce VHF coverage gaps and ensures more calls get through to the Coast Guard. The system’s advanced direction-finding capability enables Coast Guard watchstanders to more accurately locate the source of distress, or hoax, calls. It also gives watchstanders more information at their fingertips when a call comes in.

When fully operational, if a distressed boater sends a mayday using digital selective calling on a VHF radio with integrated GPS, the watchstander’s computer automatically will show the boat’s location on a display and give its GPS coordinates and Maritime Mobile Service Identity number, which are embedded in the distress transmission. The watchstander can use the MMSI to identify the radio’s owner and boat, and get the boat’s description and the owner’s address and telephone number from MMSI registration files.

(To get the full benefit of DSC VHF radios, boaters must apply for an MMSI, either from the Federal Communications Commission or through BoatU.S., Sea Tow or the U.S. Power Squadrons.)

Rescue 21 — a 21st century overhaul of a communications system that was more than 30 years old — also gives the Coast Guard five communications channels for working multiple cases simultaneously, a sophisticated feature that automatically records, cleans up and plays back maydays so watchstanders can hear garbled transmissions better, and channels for communicating with other first responders.

Brice-O’Hara says Rescue 21 now covers 28,000 miles of U.S. coastline. The goal: 95,000 miles. The system is in place in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast; the Gulf Coast, except Corpus Christi, Texas (scheduled to be in place there by December); and Boston, Long Island Sound and New York City. Southeast and northern New England are scheduled to have it in place by November and December, respectively.

The system is operating in the Pacific Northwest and is scheduled to go in along the California coast between now and next spring. The Great Lakes will have to wait until late 2010 and into December 2011. The Hawaiian Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico are scheduled for the Rescue 21 upgrade in 2011, the Western rivers system in 2012, and Alaska in 2017. Alaska presents unique problems of supportability, weather, environment, habitability, terrain, power and bandwidth, according to the Coast Guard.

The estimated cost of Rescue 21 in 1999 was $250 million, the anticipated completion date 2003. That price tag has ratcheted up to $500 million, $710 million, $872 million and most recently $1.1 billion.

See related article:

- Coast Guard quizzed over rescue lapses

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.

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