Coast Guard updates its disaster call system

Rescue 21 will address signal coverage gaps, inadequate capacity, garbled signals and interoperability with other agencies

The Coast Guard is modernizing the way it monitors distress calls from vessels.

The agency in September awarded a 19-year, $611 million contract to General Dynamics Corp. to begin work on the Rescue 21 project. Through the project, the Guard will upgrade its 30-year-old, short-range analog communications network, the National Distress and Response System, which no longer supports the Coast Guard's communications needs in coordinating search-and-rescue operations, said Capt. Ronald T. Hewitt, NDRS modernization project manager.

Rescue 21 will improve the agency's ability to receive rescue calls from boaters, pinpoint their locations and coordinate rescues, Hewitt said.

Agency officials had been concerned that the contract might be held up because of an Office of Management and Budget directive halting infrastructure projects at agencies slated to become part of the proposed Homeland Security Department. But Hewitt said the Homeland Security IT Investment Review Group, which is looking to consolidate IT projects at HSD-bound agencies, decided the Rescue 21 was mission-critical and gave approval to proceed.

The Guard expects to complete the rollout of Rescue 21 by Sept. 30, 2006.

General Dynamics next year will start deploying it in Atlantic City, N.J., and some parts of Maryland. The next deployments will be in St. Petersburg, Fla.; Mobile, Ala.; and along the coast of Washington state.

'Simply put, this new system will be the maritime equivalent of a 911 system, enhancing maritime safety by helping to minimize the time that search-and-rescue teams spend looking for people in distress,' Transportation secretary Norman Y. Mineta said. 'And that means saving more lives.'

General Dynamics beat out bids by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Scientific Applications International Corp. for the contract, which has a six-year base and three follow-on options'two four-year periods and a five-year period.

Subcontractors include American Nucleonics of Westlake Village, Calif.; CACI International Inc. of Arlington, Va.; Communication Services Inc. of Mesa, Ariz.; Fuentze Systems Concepts Inc. of Charleston, S.C.; Integrated Defense Solutions Inc. of Austin, Texas; L&E Associates of Oxon Hill, Md.; and Motorola Inc.

Coastal network

The existing network of 284 VHF-FM antenna sites with analog transceivers lies along the East and West coasts, Hewitt said. Each site covers 20 to 30 nautical miles.

There are 46 communications centers monitoring the antenna sites. One communications center typically monitors messages received at two to 10 sites.

The centers use six maritime frequencies, Hewitt said. For instance, vessels send distress signals through VHF-FM Channel 16, at 156.8 MHz, and the center uses other channels to manage search-and-rescue operations. A major problem is that the system can handle only one channel at any time because of a shortage of receiving capacity, Hewitt said.

Also, if two boats try to communicate with a center simultaneously and the signals are the same strength, the center gets a garbled message. If one distress signal is stronger than the other, the weaker signal is lost.

Another problem is that the system does not cover the entire coastline. Despite the antennas' spacing, there are still about 60 spots where vessels cannot communicate with any center.
With the new system, the Guard will:
  • Greatly reduce the gaps in the communication network

  • Increase channel capacity, which will allow simultaneous communications on six channels, including VHF-FM 16

  • Gain direction-finding equipment that will pinpoint a distressed vessel closer than is currently possible

  • Have digital selective-calling capability that will instantly transmit a vessel's name, location and the nature of its distress

  • Use digital recording for instant playback

  • Interoperate with other federal, state and local communications systems.

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