The Coast Guard Addendum to the National Search and Rescue Manual points out that although only 10% of all Search and Rescue actually involves a search, the Coast Guard annually spends $50 million on that 10%. While the Coast Guard is very good at searching, it is still a difficult undertaking. Any time you can provide your would-be rescuers with accurate information you increase your chance for a speedy rescue.
First, make sure your call is sent on Channel 16. Channel 16 is the internationally recognized hailing and distress channel on your VHF radio. It is the channel the Coast Guard continuously monitors and most other boaters listen to as well. Do your best to make your call in a clear and distinct voice. Use the proper pro-word. Use MAYDAY when you are in imminent distress, and the term PAN, PAN (rhymes with on, on) for situations where you are concerned, but not necessarily in immediate danger. Do not wait for the Coast Guard to answer before stating your situation. Coast Guard operation centers record channel 16, so they can always play back what you said. Waiting for a reply may cost you all the time you have to communicate. If you do not hear a response, however, call again to confirm your call was received. It may be helpful to post a checklist of critical information near your radio so you won't forget anything. Though even veteran Search and Rescue personnel debate what the most vital information is, these three items always make the top of the list:
If the first victim found cannot communicate, it is vital to know that there are still people waiting to be found.
Hopefully self-explanatory. An accurate latitude and longitude is best. Without that, a position relative to a specific location is best, such as 5 miles southwest of Point Loma. Try to be as specific as possible.
This, of course, helps us to pick you out of a crowd.
It may surprise some people that your reason for distress does not make the top three, but as long as responders know who and what they're looking for and where to look, even if that's all you have the chance to say they'll probably know enough to find you, and then they can figure out why you called. Regardless of the reason, the word MAYDAY tells us that you are in danger and need help immediately. After these three items of course, you should state the nature of your distress, the amount of time you think you can stay afloat, how long you think you'll be able to continue to communicate and any specific information you can provide on your situation, such as why you're sinking or any symptoms an injured passenger may be experiencing, etc., etc. Of course, once the Coast Guard hears you, we will respond and prompt you for any additional information we feel may be crucial to helping you.
Your call will start the Search and Rescue process. More than likely, your call will be received at one of 4 operations centers. These are located in San Diego, Long Beach, San Francisco and Humboldt Bay. Each center oversees remote radio sites placed along the coast to ensure complete coverage despite the limited range of your VHF radio. For offshore boaters, the operations centers also monitor 2182 kHz in the HF band. The operations center is normally staffed by a radio watch-stander, who has been specially trained in communications, and a Search and Rescue controller. The controller is typically a senior enlisted person who has spent their career in operational assignments, such as a boat coxswain at rescue stations or aboard ships. Each operations center oversees several rescue stations and possibly some smaller patrol vessels. In addition, 4 air stations have been established along the coast and typically operate in conjunction with the nearest group's operations center. All rescue stations and air stations maintain at least one crew in a ready status. Within minutes, several vessels and/or aircraft can be on their way to your position. The controller will decide upon the best course of action based on the nature of your distress, the number of people involved, the weather, the number of other cases occurring simultaneously, etc., etc. At the same time, the controller will begin to evaluate weather and sea conditions to determine a search plan in the event you are not located immediately, or in cases where the type of distress was never really known (such as when someone has called the Coast Guard to say a boat is overdue). A fifth operations center at the district headquarters will oversee the activity of the other four and can reposition rescue units as needed. For example, in response to a major marine casualty, the district controller may move some craft from adjacent areas, always trying to balance the need for a large response against the need to maintain coverage over the entire coast.