Where's Rescue 21?

Electronics — May 2005
By Ben Ellison

Where’s Rescue 21?
The Coast Guard may be way behind the curve of VHF technology, but give ‘em a break.

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• Part 1: Where’s Rescue 21?
• Part 2: Where’s Rescue 21?
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Go figure: The Coast Guard Public Affairs officer who supposedly represents the “new” Rescue 21 system to the press will not answer or return my calls, but instead of being irritated, I feel his pain. I also empathize with all the electronics salespeople who for years have been explaining the merits of that red DSC distress button that decorates every new VHF and then have had to acknowledge that the Coast Guard was not yet equipped to monitor those nifty automated calls. Some commentators think that it is a national embarrassment that we will likely be the last developed nation to implement DSC and may not even fully meet the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) late-2006 global deadline.

It would be easy to bash the Guard over this, but shouldn’t we consider what this organization has been through in the last few years? Besides its involvement in Iraq, the service has had its command structure and much of its mission retooled into the humungous Department of Homeland Security. I’m not privy to anything behind the scenes, but I sense organizational stress. Consider, for instance, the relatively new and terrific anticollision technology AIS (which we’ll be discussing next month). Before even the big ships were equipped and comfortable with the system, the Guard was apparently tasked with adding coastal monitoring to the AIS mission. It’s possible, I understand, but not easy. And just recently a government watchdog agency revealed that there’s been a lot of political hanky panky around the vast monies earmarked for port security. Imagine that you joined the Guard to help some boaters or chase some dopers, and now you’re waist deep in this other mess. All that is one reason that I’m inclined to cut the Coast Guard some slack.

The other reason is that Rescue 21 is much more ambitious, and much harder to pull off, than simply adding DSC-capable radios to the Coast Guard watch stations. In fact, the $611-million project is a complete rebuild of the entire 1970’s-era marine search-and-rescue communications apparatus. The new system has a minimum performance goal of communicating by DSC and voice with a 1-watt VHF radio six feet off the water up to 20 miles offshore along 98 percent of the 95,000 miles of shoreline watched over by the Coast Guard. Wow! That means lots of new antenna towers, averaging 350 feet tall, and super-powerful transceivers. It also means the elimination of current holes in Coast Guard VHF coverage; that two-percent area not quite up to the design goal will be in difficult areas like the low, stretched-out Florida Keys and the mountainous Aleutians.

Imagine what this performance specification means for typical 25-watt fixed boat radios, or even today’s typical 5-watt handhelds. Indeed, the first Rescue 21 test station in Atlantic City, New Jersey, has purportedly talked with vessels 100 miles offshore. And hugely enhanced range is just the beginning of Rescue 21’s attributes. All incoming calls will be digitally recorded so that garbled transmissions can be replayed and hopefully deciphered. Direction finders (DF) on the antennas will be able to compute bearings to within two degrees on all incoming voice calls. Last year the other test site at Chincoteague, Virginia, used the recording and DF functions to help save crewmen from an ethanol tanker that caught fire and sank (the amazing helicopter pilots and rescue divers involved should be mentioned).

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