Coast Guard Search And Rescue For Boats

By Ryck Lydecker

For Capt. David McBride, chief of Coast Guard Search and Rescue, the three most important words in marine safety today are "location, location, location".

From a U.S. Coast Guard Situation Report:
Mission: Search and Rescue
Incident Summary: At 1322U on 25 January 2010 Sector Seattle assumed SMC [Search and Rescue Mission Coordinator] for a DSC alert for MMSI xxxxx in position 48-06.2714N 122-30.2241W. Vessel responded to Sector Seattle callouts on VHF Ch. 16. Distressed vessel is capsized and man is sitting on hull. CG6574 diverted to scene. Issued Urgent Marine Information Broadcast (UMIB). Camano Fire and Rescue dispatched marine resource. CG6574 remained on scene with vessel in distress until Marine 12 arrived ...Case closed.

Puget Sound can be very cold at any time of year but especially in January; mere minutes in a search-and-rescue mission in these waters can mean the difference between a happy ending and, well, the kind we don't like to think about. Fortunately the case above is a textbook example of everything going according to plan. Just 12 minutes elapsed from the time the digital mayday call came in to the Coast Guard from the capsized sailboat's VHF radio until rescuers arrived on scene. And according to the "sit rep" above, the Coast Guard had a complete description of the vessel, with its name, length, boat type, homeport, and owner's name all instantly traceable through the radio's MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) number. But even more important, rescuers knew the vessel's exact position — in the Saratoga Passage between Whidbey Island and Camano Island — because the radio, in this case a hand-held unit, had embedded GPS (Global Positioning System) technology. A bigger boat more than likely would have a fixed-mount VHF radio with a separate GPS unit, and even more likely, according to the Coast Guard, these two electronic essentials would not be connected to each other, or at best have a faulty connection. The result? The search-and-rescue stays in "search."

Photo of nighttime sarch and rescue

The Coast Guard estimates that on recreational boats equipped with VHF radios that have DSC (Digital Selective Calling) capability and separate GPS units, the vast majority do not have them properly connected to each other — perhaps as many as 90 percent of boats, according to one estimate.

"I suspect the majority of boaters don't even know that connecting the radio to the GPS is something they ought to do," reports Joe Hersey, the Coast Guard's point man for telecommunications policy and marine electronic standards. "And for those who do, they find it inconvenient and complicated to connect them properly."

Hersey, who serves on the Coast Guard-led Global Maritime Distress and Safety System Task Force, reports that all fixed-mount VHF radios sold in the recreational market today are required to have a GPS interface. Since 1999, all fixed-mount VHF radios must have the automated DSC capability, but there's no requirement for universal electrical connectors to make these two electronic components compatible or easy to link together.

"The boater buys a VHF that comes with a pigtail of six or eight wires and they're supposed to connect it to a GPS, but that's not particularly easy to do," Hersey says. "You've got to have some electrical skills and find the right connectors; the radios don't come with them."

The other option is to pay for professional installation, of course, but Hersey says boaters may get the power connected, register the radio and boat with the Federal Communications Commission to get an MMSI number, and think they are ready for the open ocean, but they're only half ready. Should an emergency arise, the skipper can quickly push the radio's DSC button. That sends an automatic alert that DSC radio-equipped vessels in the vicinity (by law, all commercial vessels) will intercept, in addition to Coast Guard and other rescue stations ashore or units underway.

Boaters setting up GPS cartoon

"But without a GPS interface to the radio, unless the skipper is able to audibly broadcast the boat's position, rescuers will only know that someone's in trouble," says BoatUS Foundation president Chris Edmonston. "Thankfully, with the Coast Guard's new Rescue 21 communications system, about two-thirds complete nationwide, watch-standers ashore, or even rescue vessels underway, are much better able to triangulate on the radio signal and narrow the search area. But a GPS interface puts the help right where it's needed in the shortest time." Edmonston echoes Hersey's concern about the VHF radio-GPS interface conundrum and notes the challenges the BoatUS Foundation has faced in trying to better educate boaters about DSC radio in general, now that every radio on the market has that feature.

"We decided that one of the best ways to do that was through a DSC tutorial course and as part of it, we wanted to show how to connect the boat's GPS unit to the radio," he explains. "But what we found is that the connections are different, and not just from manufacturer to manufacturer, but between models from the same manufacturer and even from year to year. Even the ways the wires are bundled are different. No wonder so few boat owners connect them. Sure, both units do their job, but without the interface, it's as if you are running your boat with one blade missing from the prop."

So Fix It

Since the mid 1990s, BoatUS has participated on a Coast Guard task force focused on the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). This is the internationally recognized distress system that, among many other important functions, provides automated distress signals via satellite on the high seas as well as DSC radio technology. Participation on the U.S. Coast Guard's GMDSS Task Force led BoatUS to develop a no-cost registry service that allows recreational boaters to register their boat and radio with the FCC and obtain an MMSI number (see sidebar).

Earlier this year, the task force, which includes representation from other recreational boating organizations such as the U.S. Power Squadrons and the Coast Guard Auxiliary, as well as electronic manufacturers and standards-setting bodies, developed an action plan to solve "the VHF-GPS disconnect problem," as Edmonston calls it. Beginning this season, he says, boaters can expect to see more emphasis from these organizations on explaining the problem through training materials, courses, and courtesy inspections. The Coast Guard will also work through the National Marine Electronics Association, a task-force member, to encourage manufacturers to better standardize interconnection fittings and color coding on new products, as well as enhance instructions for interfacing VHF radio with GPS units.

According to Hugh Lupo, a marine electronics technician who serves on the GMDSS Task Force, only some manufacturers follow a color-coding standard that is already in place. "About six manufacturers follow the standards we now have, the others don't, and I'm left to figure out how to marry the standard to the non-standard equipment," Lupo says. "This is a serious problem because there's no requirement to follow the standards and manufacturers are going to have to be willing to do it."

For its part, BoatUS will redouble its efforts to get the word out to boaters about the interface problem and continue to promote standardization in marine electronics. "We all need to remember that today's technology is taking the 'search' out of search and rescue," says Edmonston, "but it's up to individual boaters to apply that technology at their own helm stations or factor in compatibility when shopping for new equipment."

To run through a free, seven-part marine radio tutorial online, go to: 

— Published: June/July 2011

Rescue 21 Nearing Completion

The Coast Guard's advanced distress-communication system, Rescue 21, is nearing completion and by September will be standing watch over 42,000 miles of U.S. coastline. The new system replaces 1970s-era technology and features stronger radio-signal capability, enhanced direction finding, instant radio-broadcast playback, and better-integrated communication with non- Coast Guard first-responder and rescue agencies. It also features mobile emergency backup systems (one proved critical during Hurricane Katrina), and the ability to zero in on hoax mayday calls.

By the end of 2012, Rescue 21 will cover the coastal continental U.S., Great Lakes, Hawaii, and U.S. territories. Modified coverage in Alaska and along Western rivers is scheduled for 2017 completion. Rescue 21, 11 years in development, is the crucial link allowing mariners to send, at the touch of a button, encoded mayday calls, with GPS location and boat identification number, from DSC-enabled radios.


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