Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mayday, Mayday—search and rescue on the Western Rivers

Excerpt from U.S. Coast Guard “Proceedings of the Marine Safety & Security Council” magazine. By U.S. Coast Guard CDR P.J. Maguire.

True or False:

  1. The Coast Guard conducts search and rescue on the Western Rivers.
  2. The Air Force conducts all inland search and rescue.

The answers are “true” and “false,” in that order.

There are misunderstandings regarding search and rescue (SAR) along the Western Rivers that have become ingrained through misperception and repetition. SAR in this area during the early years of commercial navigation was, in fact, mostly “do it yourself.” Lacking any official search and rescue organization or policy, most mariners looked to their peers or to bystanders for help when in trouble. This history of self-reliance continues, as the skilled captains and crew of workboats typically come to the aid of peers in distress.

Maritime vs. Aeronautical SAR
U.S. SAR coordinators and search and rescue regions are delineated in the National SAR Plan.
· The U.S. Air Force is responsible for the recognized U.S. aeronautical SRR (search and rescue region) corresponding to the continental U.S. other than Alaska.
· The U.S. Pacific Command is responsible for the recognized U.S. aeronautical SRR corresponding to Alaska.
· The U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for the recognized U.S. aeronautical and maritime SRRs that coincide with the ocean environments, including Hawaii.

The “land” portion of the maritime search and rescue regions in the U.S. is covered by the New Orleans search and rescue region, administered by the Eighth Coast Guard District.

The Nature of the Territory
In addition to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, there are numerous other rivers and lakes in this area that are used for recreational boating. Many of the rivers have been harnessed by dams, which form large lakes upstream. Commonly called “pooled water,” these systems have become havens for recreational boating activity.

In addition to use of the rivers for leisure, there is also tremendous commercial use, which means that not only recreational boaters but also working mariners are at risk.

Inland USCG Search and Rescue
Western Rivers SAR is fundamentally no different than any other Coast Guard SAR. Each sector is a designated search and rescue mission coordinator and carries out SAR on behalf of the rescue coordination center along all the navigable waterways in its areas.

The only real differences in Western Rivers SAR is 1) the frequency with which Coast Guard assets are deployed, and 2) that Coast Guard assets are not usually the primary search and rescue units. Due to crew and funding limits, none of the Western Rivers boat or cutter units are held in the “firehouse” stance of our typical air and small boat stations.

Coast Guard SAR Personnel and Equipment
Within each USCG sector command center, you will find SAR-qualified personnel—the operations specialists and SAR controllers who are required to attend SAR school and maintain proficiency in these duties. Personnel on Coast Guard river tenders are also held to the same high standards, which gives them the necessary skills to conduct SAR.

The Disaster Assistance Response Teams, known as DARTs, are unique to the USCG Western Rivers sectors. These highly mobile teams consist of personnel and trailers loaded with flood punts—flat-bottomed boats designed to operate in the shallow waters typically found in flooded areas. These teams train to be ready for response to natural disasters like the floods of 1993 and the hurricanes of 2005.

Another prevalent SAR entity around the Western Rivers is the Coast Guard Auxiliary. The boats and aircraft of the auxiliary are active and engaged in virtually all of the popular recreational boating areas. As they do along the coasts, they also provide significant support to the Coast Guard’s SAR mission. They train and qualify to the same standards as their coastal counterparts.

Additionally, an extensive network of communication towers is in place throughout the Western Rivers. Urgent Marine Information Broadcasts are sent over this network and “maydays” are received. Each site is connected to one of the three sector command centers, and they are in use 24 hours a day.

So when a mayday call goes out along the Western Rivers, a Coast Guard command center will kick into action. While the Coast Guard relies heavily upon the great help of many local police and fire departments as well as the towing industry, the job is carried out in the same fashion as SAR all over the country—with due diligence, and to the best of our ability.

About the author:
CDR P.J. Maguire has served in the Coast Guard since graduation from the Coast Guard Academy in 1989. He has served aboard cutters and at shore units.

For more information:
Full article and “U.S. Coast Guard Western Rivers Sectors” edition of USCG Proceedings is available at Click on “archives” and then “2007-08 Vol. 64, Number 4” (Winter 2007-08).

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