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Cellphones Help Coast Guard Locate Distressed Mariners


i911 could be a game-changer for getting help to boaters faster.

A safety message stated often by BoatUS, the U.S. Coast Guard, and boating safety advocates is to not rely exclusively on cellphones for emergency communication when on the water. A VHF radio (fix mounted or handheld) is considered and essential tool for safe recreational boating. While that message will not change, new technology has given the cellphone a new benefit.

This year, First Coast Guard District command center crews, from Maine to Northern New Jersey, have a new tool to help distressed mariners come home to their families after being out to sea.

The i911 program allows for watchstanders to use a mariner’s cellphone number to assist in finding their location for Coast Guard rescue crews to locate them faster. Once the number is entered, the mariner receives a text message authorizing them to share their location with the Coast Guard. Once shared, the internal cellphone’s GPS, which uses satellites to pinpoint the mariner’s location, is displayed on a screen for watchstanders to aid in the search for them. This software is already available to first responder agencies across the country. It was developed by Callyo Inc. and is a free service for all first responders, including the Coast Guard.

“What’s cool about my job is that I get to learn about new technology and how we can apply it to help the Coast Guard,” said Lt. Anne Newton, Coast Guard Research and Development Center. “The second I saw Callyo’s presentation, I knew this would help command centers tremendously.”

Depending on cellphone service, i911 can determine locations of distressed mariners up to 15 to 20 nautical miles offshore. During the pilot period, more than 38,000 search-and-rescue (SAR) cases across the contiguous United States were analyzed, and it was found that 89% of all SAR cases took place within 20 nautical miles offshore.

While i911 is useful in certain circumstances, BoatUS strongly recommends having a VHF with digital selective calling (DSC) on board. BoatUS Members can request an MMSI number at no cost, but it must be programmed into your VHF for the technology to work.

It’s not a perfect system though, there are some challenges. The biggest challenge watchstanders at Sector Long Island Sound found was teaching distressed mariners how to turn on their location services. The i911 system will not work without it.

“Sometimes, we just need to talk people through how to share their location,” says Joshua Olsen, a command duty watchstander for Sector Long Island Sound. During the pilot period, the i911 system assisted in bringing several mariners home including three people on an inflatable raft. They were blown out to sea and couldn’t paddle to shore due to high winds and strong sea currents. Armed with only their cellphones, i911 pinpointed their location about 6 miles offshore, and rescue crews were able to rescue and bring them home safety.

“It’s like Rescue 21 for the phone,” says Chief Petty Officer Andrew Case, a command duty officer at Sector Southeastern New England, located in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “It greatly decreases the time we spend looking for someone and gets the rescue crews out faster.”

The pilot program, which ran in 2019, was authorized for Coast Guard command centers across the entire U.S. as of March 20, 2020.

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Rich Armstrong

Senior Editor, BoatUS Magazine