When the 235-foot passenger ferry LeConte ran aground off the Alaskan coast on May 10, 2004, the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Forest Service, Alaska Department of Transportation and Alaska Marine Highway System coordinated the rescue and salvage of the grounded ship. The effort was made possible in large measure by interoperable radio communications aided by textbook interagency cooperation, public-private partnership and radio-over-Internet protocol technologies.

In southeast Alaska, more than 2000 islands are included in a land and water mass that is about the size of New Jersey. Ferry transportation is a critical transportation mode in the region, and ferries operate on the inland waterway daily. On the morning of May 10, the LeConte, en route from Angoon to Sitka, struck a well-known and marked hazard — the Cozian Reef — and ran aground. The vessel took on water, forcing the evacuation of 86 passengers and 23 crew members. Divers later found two 30- to 40-foot gashes about eight feet apart on both sides of the V-shaped vessel.

Removing the passengers and crew proved to be less challenging than the ferry's salvage. The ship contained large amounts of fuel oil and 15 automobiles, either of which would create an environmental hazard should the ferry sink, a very real possibility as the area is subject to high winds and high seas. Every high tide brought with it the potential of a sinking. Also, the gashes needed to be repaired before the ferry could be towed to dry-dock, which ultimately occurred at Ketchikan, Alaska, on May 20.

Radio communications were critical to the rescue and salvage of the LeConte. The chain of islands where the ferry ran aground is within the Tongass National Forest, where the Forest Service three years ago installed a radio-over-IP communications system developed by Catalyst Communications Technologies. Today, this system connects 12 radio towers and 35 corresponding repeater systems to dispatchers who are linked via the Forest Service's wide area network. In addition, the network uses a combination of fixed landline fractional T-1 services and satellite links to reach some of the remote islands in the north section of the Tongass. The dispatchers communicate using voice-over-IP technology across the Forest Service data network.

While the Coast Guard coordinated the initial response to the grounding, the Forest Service's radio systems proved critical. (Though the Coast Guard has excellent radio coverage on the open ocean outside of the forest and in many areas of the inside passage, its radio coverage within southeast Alaska is not as comprehensive as that offered by the Forest Service.) First responders on the scene included three Coast Guard helicopters, a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration ship, a private barge and several volunteer vessels. Later, the Forest Service, Alaska Department of Transportation and Alaska Marine Highway System — as well as state and federal organizations responsible for environmental control — got involved. Each entity's contribution to the rescue had to be coordinated using radio communications.

The Forest Service and the Coast Guard planted the seed for the effective radio communications that ensued in the aftermath of the LeConte accident by testing the interoperability of their voice communications last summer during a Greenpeace exercise in southeast Alaska. The Greenpeace ship Esperanza was in the region protesting logging operations in the forest. As a precaution, a unified command was set up involving the Coast Guard, Forest Service, Alaska State Troopers and several other agencies, with the Coast Guard and Forest Service coordinating radio operations in the event there was an incident or emergency.

Leveraging this cooperation, USCG Lieutenant Commander Warren Russell called Chris John, Lead Telecommunications Specialist at the Forest Service, for assistance with radio operations during the operation. Initially, the Forest Service provided five portable radios so responders at the grounding site could communicate with each other.

Throughout the rest of the day, both the Forest Service and Coast Guard began to establish dispatch operations for the unified command at the Marine Safety Office (MSO) in Juneau and the on-scene command, which was established on the NOAA ship located at the grounding site.

The integration was complex because the Forest Service and the Coast Guard each have protected data networks, which could not be directly connected. To solve this problem, Toby Dombrowski, the Forest Service's telecom specialist in Juneau, was asked to provide the MSO with a laptop computer loaded with desktop dispatch software. Because the MSO employs a digital Centrex telephone service, locating an analog telephone line to plug into the laptop created a challenge. Finally a Centrex analog fax line was identified and rerouted to the laptop, which provided dial-up communications into the Forest Service network.

Establishing communications from the MSO was important at this juncture because first responders and the media were converging on the site. From the MSO, the Coast Guard used a remote dial-up application to gain entry into the Forest Service network in order to establish radio communications directly between the MSO, the unified command and the on-scene command over the Forest Service network. This path also traversed a link relay crossband connector from UHF to VHF over the Forest Service's fixed wireline network.

Once established, the dial-up circuit remained active for more than a week, interrupted only by three simple idle timeouts and a single 20-minute access delay that was created when all the modems in the Forest Service remote access bank were busy. While the theory behind such an interconnected network was always plausible, this was the first time radio communications over such a variety of network options was used in a real-time emergency situation.

“We were surprised and pleased that the radio system over a dial-up network worked as well as it did,” said Dombrowski. “We proved it works.”

According to Dombrowski, it took 24 hours to establish the initial communications, but had the exercise been practiced, it could have been established in less than 15 minutes. Over the network, the radio traffic was significant with heavy periods of use, ranging from department head reports to equipment procurement and grocery orders for the rescue and salvage teams.

The incident provided a number of lessons learned. Radio interoperability between organizations need not require a complex formula of equipment or administrative bureaucracy. The Forest Service radio coverage in this part of Alaska is significant, and there are now plans to equip other laptop computers with dispatch software to be ready for deployment for any subsequent emergencies.

Everyone involved seems convinced that in an emergency, the use of commercial carrier dial-up networks, combined with internal wide area networks and complex radio networks maintained by public-safety and government agencies, can be managed and provide excellent communications. And everyone also has a renewed appreciation for the important value that interoperable radio communications provides to emergency operations.

Amrit Wadhwa is engineering manager at Catalyst Communications Technologies, where he leads the company's engineering and development team. A 20-year technology veteran, Wadhwa contributed to engineering and product advancements at Alcatel, Motorola and EDS prior to joining Catalyst.