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Rescue 21 Reaches Milestone of 50,000 Search and Rescue Cases

March 29, 2013

Rescue 21 Reaches Milestone
The Rescue 21 command, control and communication system covers 41,871 miles of U.S. coastline and has supported more than 50,000 search and rescue cases. U.S. Coast Guard graphic.

The Coast Guard recently
reached a milestone of 50,000
search and rescue (SAR) cases
using the capabilities of the new Rescue 21 command, control and direction-finding communications system with the conclusion of a
case conducted by Sector Jacksonville, Fla. watchstanders, March 16, 2013. At Coast Guard Headquarters, the project office marked the event with reflections on what the system has provided
and how its capabilities will evolve.

“This is a very big milestone; it represents widespread use of Rescue 21,” Deputy Project Manager Eugene Lockhart said. “Now that we have completed the deployment throughout the coastal zones of the continental United States, the Great Lakes and the island territories, we have seen the number of SAR cases handled by the new system pick up steadily, averaging 1,000 cases each month. As the season warms up, we expect to see that number increase.” 

Rescue 21 was created to equip Coast Guard watchstanders with enhanced capabilities to locate mariners in distress and coordinate responses with partner agencies. Rescue 21 replaces the 1970s-era National Distress and Response System (NDRS) with a more accurate direction-finding capability via towers that generate lines of bearing to the source of VHF radio transmissions, thereby significantly reducing search time.

Coast Guard crews have deployed Rescue 21 to cover 41,871 miles of coastline along the entire Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts of the continental United States as well as along the shores of the Great Lakes, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands.

Coast Guard watchstanders count the number of SAR cases supported by Rescue 21 with data from the Maritime Information System – Law Enforcement (MISLE) database. Lockhart noted that the MISLE data also shows how extensively Rescue 21 has been used to support command and control of Coast Guard assets, including small boats responding to marine distress calls as well as better coordination between the Coast Guard and partner agencies, such as local and state first responders.

For example, Rescue 21 installations demonstrated “particular robustness during Hurricane Sandy,” Lockhart said, helping the Coast Guard coordinate the interagency command, control and communications essential to disaster recovery.

“Most of our remote tower sites remained up and running during Sandy,” he said. “With the failure of the commercial communication circuits, we were able to re-home our tower sites into our disaster recovery location at Martinsburg, W. Va. A team from Sector New York came down and they were able to re-establish communications and port and harbor control within a fairly quick period of time. That was essential to getting the port of New York reopened as well as for assessing damage and prioritizing work that needed to be done.”

Alaska and Western Rivers

Meanwhile, the Rescue 21 project team is “neck deep” in developing a version of the Rescue 21 system that will meet the unique requirements of Alaska, where the rugged terrain and challenging climate necessitate certain modifications, such as remote power generation capabilities. Similarly, the Coast Guard is modifying Rescue 21 for coverage of the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys, which have their own unique requirements.

Rescue 21 Technical Director Cmdr. Michael Edwards noted that the Alaskan environment is “very different—requiring different facilities, different maintenance requirements and power generation” in contrast to the system installations for the continental United States.

“In the lower 48 states, we can plug into the local commercial power grid, which we cannot do in some of the more remote areas of southern Alaska,” Edwards said. “The functionality we will deliver to Alaska is going to be very similar, however, including VHF capability to handle the distress calls and Digital Selective Calling capability.”

Digital Selective Calling (DSC) is a feature of marine-band VHF radios that can transmit an automated distress signal alert containing a vessel’s Maritime Mobile Service Identity number as well as GPS coordinates to other DSC-equipped vessels and facilities.

Deployment to 49 sites in Sectors Upper and Lower Mississippi River and Sector Ohio River Valley will replace legacy NDRS equipment. As with coastal deployment, the system will replace legacy VHF radios and antennas and add a second VHF channel to support two simultaneous calls.

Future Plans

While the project’s current focus is on deployment to Alaska and the Western Rivers,  Coast Guard project managers are also looking ahead to the evolution of Rescue 21’s policies, processes and technology.

Near-term steps include the standardization of both the operation and maintenance functions of the system. The service also is factoring in issues like information assurance and security measures that are required of all of its command, control, communications, computers and information technology systems.

Lockhart and Edwards noted that reducing the system’s “footprint,” in terms of hardware brought into the command center, would be a focal point.

“A lot of equipment is required to provide these capabilities,” Lockhart said. “So there is going to be a continuing push to look for efficiencies across the multiple systems that the Coast Guard uses for command and control.”

Also, the project will seek to improve upon the mobile capabilities of Rescue 21―namely, deployable towers and electronics packages that can help restore communications after natural disasters.

“We have assets in the field that can be deployed to natural disaster areas within a certain period of time to restore some communications capabilities,” Lockhart said. “We are looking at some alternatives―other systems and services that might be employed to improve that functionality.”

The Coast Guard is also considering ways to make Rescue 21 even more flexible as a command and control tool for distributed management of resources.

“You can’t stand a watch in North Carolina from St. Louis or from Boston, but there are technologies out there that could allow that kind of operational flexibility,” Edwards said. “Potentially, we could more easily tailor our technologies to meet operational needs. There is room to grow in that direction.”

For more information: Rescue 21 project page
Last Modified 1/12/2016