Where's Rescue 21? Page 2

Electronics — May 2005
By Ben Ellison

Where’s Rescue 21?
Part 2: Rescue 21’s slogan, “Taking the Search Out of Search and Rescue,” seems to be graphically and wonderfully literal.

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Rescue 21 will also give the Coast Guard more channels to work with and improved interoperability with its federal, state, and local partners. Plus it’s engineered for 99.5 percent reliability and is further backed up with truck-mounted antenna/comms stations for use during disasters, natural and otherwise. The system designers, a little like the sport fishermen I wrote about last year (“DSC Revisited,” March 2004), also see the value of plotting communications onto electronic charts. Those DF bearings will be overlaid on the Coast Guard’s new watch-keeper consoles (see page 46); better yet, all DSC calls will be automatically and precisely plotted, and so will the location of the Coast Guard’s own vessels, also via DSC. If you’ve ever listened as a watch keeper tries to get a precise location from a frazzled boater in distress, you’ll appreciate the value of this automation. Rescue 21’s slogan, “Taking the Search Out of Search and Rescue,” seems to be graphically and wonderfully literal.

All that said, we do need to acknowledge the problems. I did communicate with a Rescue 21 representative more than a year ago, which is how I have before me a Deployment Schedule graphing the system rollout. Given the October 2004 goal of 30-percent completion, it was already off schedule. Now it’s silly. Last summer another pesky federal investigative agency revealed that the whole deal was slipping further behind due to a litany of software/hardware interface problems, antenna permitting issues, and so forth. Last October’s 70-percent milestone passed with only the two test stations operating. Moreover, some communications equipment in use is now so old that no parts are available. Congress asked for a revised, realistic deployment schedule, but as best I can determine, the Coast Guard has not provided it. Would you answer your phone?

Meanwhile, however, the VHF manufacturers are going great guns. The salespeople may be a little shy about touting the distress feature these days, but the fact is that there are so many DSC radios out there now that you’re probably going to get some attention if you activate that red button. Believe me, the alarm you’ll set off on boats within VHF range is freaking loud. Of course this assumes you’ve gone through the drill of obtaining and programming an MMSI number; most sets simply won’t do DSC without it. Hopefully, you’ve also wired a GPS to your radio (another subject we’ll detail in next month’s electronics issue). Perhaps you’ve even connected your radio to a compliant display (there are many) that can plot incoming distress or private DSC calls. That feature is definitely optional to the standards, but even Lowrance’s new $159 LVR-950 radio has it, along with a hailer and a speaker mic. It’s even Class D, meaning that it has a second receiver so that it will never miss a DSC call. At about $300 it was a Class D breakthrough last year.

In fact the VHF competition is ferocious. Rugged waterproof construction, decent sound, full feature sets, and long warranties have become the norm, compelling the majors to put their best foot forward and/or innovate. Icom, prideful of its quality builds, now comes to boat shows with a whole display case full of sawn-apart radios. Standard Horizon has come up with a helm-space-saving black-box architecture (see page 44). And though the touchscreen Uniden set I wrote about in February has been delayed, two other about-to-ship Elite models look interesting. Both support WHAMx4 wireless mics, which appear to offer rugged, full-power VHF, including DSC, plus flexible intercoming, anywhere around a boat and at least a short walk down the dock. I’m keen to test.

All and all, the promise of DSC for improved distress and nondistress communications continues to reveal itself. And eventually the Coast Guard will come online with an overarching VHF presence like we’ve never experienced before. Of course, if you do go back to what I wrote in my March 2004 column, you’ll find that I was even more optimistic. Patience, maties, and be kind to the next Coasty you encounter.

Next page > Electronics Q&A > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

This article originally appeared in the April 2005 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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