Rescue 21 put to use in Katrina crisis - Soundings Online

Rescue 21 put to use in Katrina crisis

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Last summer, Hurricane Katrina trashed the Coast Guard’s communications grid around New Orleans, so the agency set up an untested mobile emergency antenna and receiver — part of its new Rescue 21 communications system — to fill the void.

Last summer, Hurricane Katrina trashed the Coast Guard’s communications grid around New Orleans, so the agency set up an untested mobile emergency antenna and receiver — part of its new Rescue 21 communications system — to fill the void.

The Aug. 29 hurricane “obliterated” the Coast Guard’s communications infrastructure in southeastern Louisiana, leaving it out of earshot of distress calls over VHF radio, says Judy Silverstein, the Rescue 21 spokesperson.

The Coast Guard erected a 36,000-pound portable antenna with generator and satellite link near Venice, La., to receive and relay distress calls to its operations center in Martinsburg, W.Va. The operations center, in turn, relayed information from those calls over landline to Coast Guard stations in the disaster zone, Silverstein says.

Within days of deploying the antenna, the Coast Guard received a mayday from the motor vessel Douglas, which had struck an object in the southern Mississippi River. Silverstein says clear communication transmissions allowed the Coast Guard to respond to that and other cases. “It worked beautifully,” she says. “It was in place for 180 days.”

With forecasters predicting 13 to 16 named storms — eight to 10 of them hurricanes and four to six major hurricanes — the Coast Guard is preparing for the worst and is positioning four of the mobile antennas in Huntsville, Ala., for this year’s hurricane season. The antennas were designed as part of the disaster recovery component of the Coast Guard’s $710 million high-technology Rescue 21 communications system, which is just now coming online. The system is in place in Atlantic City, N.J., and along Maryland’s Eastern Shore and should be operational this year in St. Petersburg, Fla., and coastal Alabama, Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle, Silverstein says.

The system won’t be fully operational along all 95,000 miles of U.S. coastline until 2011. It will plug gaps in the Coast Guard’s VHF coverage, give watchstanders the ability to locate VHF distress calls to within 2 degrees of bearing, allow them to immediately play back digitally enhanced recordings of distress calls so they can hear garbled transmissions better, and process digital selective calling, the VHF feature that embeds such vessel information as name, registration data and description, and GPS position in an emergency signal sent out at the push of a button on the radio. Rescue 21 finally is starting to come online after a five-year delay.