Then and Now Part 2: Putting the SEARCH in Search and Rescue

Post written by LTJG Ryan T. White

Let’s go back in time, to the mid-1800s, on the sparsely populated east coast. You are wearing the uniform of a surfman, assigned to a U.S. Life Saving Service station in New Jersey. It’s about 2 a.m. and winter is loosening its grip on the mid-Atlantic state. There are no casinos or water parks lining the beach; no houses or condos. It’s you and the elements; the crashing of the surf, a cold constant wind, and the loud beating of rain against your face. It’s dark; the moon is hidden by storm clouds, no head lights of passing cars, no light-lined boardwalks. You have about five miles of coastline to patrol. At the end of that five mile walk you will meet your buddy from the next station down the beach. It’s a nasty night; you talk about the weather and being somewhere warmer, somewhere drier.

You look out at the ocean, feeling dwarfed by the pummeling waves. There’s a flash of lightning, and something catches your eye. Was it a wave? Was it a rock? You hear a faint noise between the thunder and the beating rain. It’s dark and late, and you’re tired. Could your mind be playing tricks on you? You don’t move; focused on that mass in the dark that you located in a fraction of a second. There it is again, something that sounded like “help.” Your heart is pounding now and you can hear it, added to the chorus of thunder, wind, waves, and rain. You don’t want to hear any of that right now, it just clouds your mind. Another flash of lightning and you see it. It’s not a rock or a wave. The dark shape you saw was a ship being pounded on the rocks. As if on queue, you hear it loud and clear, “HELP!” You can tell it’s about 500 yards off the beach, too far to use a Lyle Gun (think small cannon that shoots a projectile with line attached to it).

This picture shows surfmen heading out to sea.

U.S. Life Saving Service surfmen heading out to sea.

You run three miles back to the station. Fellow surfmen are alerted and instinct takes over. Surfmen have trained for this many times. Its runs like clockwork. This isn’t the first time a ship has run aground on your station’s span of beach. Members of the station drag a surf boat onto a cart and walk it three miles to the point on the beach you saw the grounded ship. You prepare the surf boat, members grabbing their oars. You take each wave as it comes, head straight into the surf. By sunrise, after multiple trips to the ship and back to shore, you have rescued 15 people and are back at the station. All of this and most people are still asleep back in town. Today you are a surfman in the U.S. Life Saving Service, in 1915 you will be called a Coast Guardsman as the Life Saving Service merges with the Revenue Cutter Service.

Let’s fast forward now, to the present day. Same dedication today as the 1800s, same concern for human life, but now a much more capable life saving service thanks to a little thing called progress.

Replacing a series of Life Saving Stations are Coast Guard air stations, small boat stations, cutters, and command centers. No longer will you systematically patrol a five mile stretch of beach, but instead you monitor a growing array of equipment used to detect distress signals including various VHF, HF, and UHF radios and direction finding equipment not to forget the new and important Rescue 21.

Mariners also have better tools to use during an emergency. Some keep Emergency Position Radio Indicating Beacons (EPIRBs) onboard their ships. The purpose of these beacons is pretty clear just from the name. In an emergency they can be activated to emit a 406 MHz signal that is received by the Coast Guard. When the EPIRB is properly registered to a vessel, its emergency signal transmits the identity of the vessel and its location to the Coast Guard.

Digital Selective Calling (DSC) is another new, advanced option for reporting an emergency on the water. Once a DSC radio is properly installed and registered on a vessel it can act like a normal radio. If there is an emergency, the operator may hit an emergency button. After holding down that button, a burst of information is emitted, including the vessel’s location and vessel registration.

A map of Rescue 21 coverage

A map of Rescue 21 coverage

The Coast Guard has also stood up and is expanding Rescue 21. Rescue 21 currently covers 28,000 miles of coastline, and is expanding. When a distress call is transmitted, a Coast Guard command center receives the call and is able to record and replay the distress call. Rescue 21 allows that command center to determine a line of bearing between the vessel in distress and the tower that received the emergency transmission. Using this one line of bearing, the command center can begin a search down that line; however, with two or more lines of bearing the possible search areas can be greatly decreased. While many of the Live Saving Stations dealt with groundings on sandbars as far off the beach as 800 yards, Rescue 21 provides coverage 20 nautical miles from the coast. This is how the typical Rescue 21 system works, however there are variations for inland waterways and the coast of Alaska.

For emergencies farther off the coast where immediate U.S. Coast Guard response is less possible, Amver is literally a life saver. “Amver, sponsored by the United States Coast Guard, is a unique, computer-based, and voluntary global ship reporting system used worldwide by search and rescue authorities to arrange for assistance to persons in distress at sea.” If a vessel has a problem on the high seas, the Coast Guard is able to coordinate with vessels enrolled in Amver to render assistance to the vessel in distress.

Finally, the information that a Coast Guard command center receives in a search and rescue (SAR) case is entered into the Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System (SAROPS). Using the computer based SAROPS program, SAR controllers are able to calculate for wind and sea conditions and develop search patterns that take into account the possible drift of a vessel or person in distress. Coast Guardsmen, as well as international students and members of the Navy and Air Force, are trained to use SAROPS and Rescue 21 at the Maritime Search Planning Course at Coast Guard Training Center Yorktown, VA.

It’s clear the Coast Guard has come a long way in over 200 years, from Life Saving Stations, Lyle Guns and oared surf boats to advanced technology communications, computer-based SAR programs, and an ever increasing awareness of the maritime domain. Despite all of the advances in technology and improvements to SAR, mariners can go a long way to keep themselves safe. By carrying the appropriate survival gear, developing a float plan with friends or family on shore, maintaining a working VHF radio, and understanding the dangers around them they are able to mitigate some of the inherent risks while still enjoying the water around them.

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