Homeland security includes new maritime 911 system
Recently, a boat master, with 200 Haitian refugees aboard, simply guided his derelict boat toward the shores off Key Biscayne, Fla., ran it aground and allowed the refugees to jump off. They waded ashore seeking freedom and asylum on American soil.
The incident raises a number of questions.
How did the boat get so close to U.S. shores that our Coast Guard didn’t notice them?
Would 200 armed and deadly terrorists have been noticed, boarded and stopped?
Where, in the program of Homeland Security, does security patrol of waters off our coast fall, and how can we prevent a boatload of terrorists from coming ashore?
The Florida coast is vulnerable because of its length. But, according to Lt. Ron Mench, media center officer for the U.S. Coast Guard, the fleet helps prevent terrorism and security threats, enforces laws and helps reduce the damage threatening the marine environment. But, because of its relatively small size: 35,000 active duty personnel and 1634 Coast Guard vessels (180 Cutters, 211 aircraft and 1400 boats), every inch of the U. S. coastline cannot be watched every minute of every day. The Seventh Coast Guard District personnel (covering the area from South Carolina, the Florida Keys, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico) conduct more than 7,000 search and rescue operations in just these waters annually. Help is on the way: a modernized National Distress and Response System– “Rescue 21”, will eliminate known radio coverage gaps, improve awareness of unit location and communication connectivity to other agencies, increase detection and localization of distress calls and enhance homeland security.
Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thomas H. Collins announced a $611 million contract has been awarded to General Dynamics Decision Systems, a business unit of General Dynamics, of Scottsdale, AZ to overhaul (modernize) the Coast Guard’s National Distress & Response System, now nicknamed “Rescue 21.”
“Rescue 21 will help take the search out of search and rescue in the 21st century,” added Vice Admiral James D. Hull, Atlantic Area Commander of the U.S. Coast Guard.
“Simply put, this new system will be the maritime equivalent of a “911” system, enhancing maritime safety by helping minimize the time that search and rescue teams spend looking for people in distress,” U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta said. “And that means saving more lives.”
The General Dynamics system make-over comprises modernization of ground-based installations at about 270 Coast Guard facilities, more than 300 radio towers (most of which already exist, needing only enhancement or upgraded equipment and roughly 40 new towers) and installation of new communications equipment on 657 Coast Guard vessels. When Search and Rescue (SAR) operations are initiated, the NDRS “Rescue 21” system will reduce response time while maximizing communications.
Among the “Rescue 21” attributes are:
*Filling in coverage gaps in the current VHF-FM system.
*Increased channel capacity, allowing for simultaneous communications on six channels (including VHF 16).
*Direction Finding Equipment that will pinpoint a distressed vessel to within plus or minus two degrees.
*Digital Selective Calling capability that will instantly transmit a vessel’s name, exact location, nature of the distress and other vital information when used in conjunction with an integrated Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver and properly registered Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number.
*Digitally record communication for instant playback.
*Reduce system “down time” and allow “critical function” recovery within 24 hours and full system recovery within seven days following natural disasters.
*Allow for Interoperability with other federal, state, and local agencies.
The Coast Guard acknowledges its system is difficult to maintain and inadequate to meet the future safety requirements of growing marine traffic. The new system is expected to help minimize the time that search and rescue teams spend looking for people in distress. It will enhance VHF-FM coverage, add position localization on a VHF-FM transmission, increase the number of voice channels allowing watchstanders to conduct multiple operations, protect sensitive communications, allow asset tracking and digital voice recording with immediate enhanced playback capability.
Trying to locate a ship or boat in distress along the waters of the continental United States, Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Great Lakes up to 20 miles offshore (and on interior waterways) is harrowing at best. The Coast Guard’s National Distress and Response System monitors calls and coordinates search and rescue operations. However, the system is in need of an upgrade as its coverage misses about 14 percent of the total area. The Coast Guard cannot hear weak distress calls from certain areas, and other weak-signal calls are subject to being “stepped on” by a stronger signal, overridden and not heard.
Because of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, the Coast Guard has taken on a new more urgent posture. Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is a critical, developing component, encompassing a Maritime Homeland Security Strategy (MHLS) to detect, deter, disrupt and intercept terrorist threats across the maritime domain. This includes port and domain awareness with 55 cutters, 42 aircraft and hundreds of small boats patrolling 361 major ports and coastlines. Included in the MDA posture is changing the 24-hour Notice of Arrival requirement to 96 hours to increase port domain awareness. And initiating three scalable Maritime Security postures for increased attention: MARSEC 1-New Normalcy; MARSEC 2-Heightened Risk; and MARSEC 3-Incident Imminent.
The National Distress and Response System Modernization Project (Rescue 21), once fully deployed, will reduce the 14 percent no-coverage gap to less than 2 percent. A mariner in distress will make the equivalent of a ‘911’ call for help and the Coast Guard will be able to quickly pinpoint the location of the caller, identify the closest rescue vessel(s) and send help faster than it can today.
The system will be deployed and field-tested in the northeastern regions – Atlantic City, N.J., and the eastern shore of Maryland during 2003. The next deployment will in the St. Petersburg, Fla., area and Mobile, Ala., and adjacent regions. Seattle and Port Angeles, Wash., will follow and the balance of the entire United States will be installed and operational by Sept. 30, 2006.