Nine years after work began at Group Atlantic City, N.J., the Coast Guards Rescue 21 project crossed a major milestone in June 2012 with acceptance at Sector Guam, making it fully operational along the coastlines of the continental United States (CONUS), the Great Lakes, Hawaii, and the territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands. Looking to the future, the project begins its final phase with plans to develop capability for Alaska and for the Western Rivers, which includes the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys.

Rescue 21 is the Coast Guard's advanced command, control and direction-finding communications system. Designed to replace the antiquated National Distress and Response System, it provides coverage out to a minimum of 20 nautical miles from shore and is currently active along approximately 42,000 miles of coastline. Rescue 21 more accurately identifies the location of callers in distress via towers that generate lines of bearing to the source of VHF radio transmissions. To date, Rescue 21 has played a role in more than 47,000 search and rescue cases.

Since 2003, Rescue 21 has become a major command and control asset for the Coast Guard, enabling more efficient use of search and rescue resources, and vastly enhancing the safety of life at sea. Its direction-finding capability minimizes search times and helps to indentify hoax callers, a benefit Sector Southeastern New England has recently experienced firsthand.

"Rescue 21 is helping us to narrow down the location of a series of hoax calls," said Lt. Bryan Swintek, the sectors command center chief. "Using the Rescue 21 system, we have created a watch log that tracks pertinent information, such as which tower picked up the call and when."

The system also attaches an audio file of each call to each entry in the watch log, which plays a key role in zeroing in on the suspected hoax caller(s).

"Whenever we can identify a potential hoax call, we reduce or eliminate our rescue crews exposure to the everyday risks of search and rescue and especially the increased risks of going out at night and in severe weather," said Eugene Lockhart, the deputy project manager for Rescue 21.

Another important feature of Rescue 21 is Digital Selective Calling (DSC) technology, which allows mariners in distress with DSC-equipped radios to transmit, at the push of a button, their exact GPS position and vital vessel information to the Coast Guard and other DSC-equipped vessels.

"Digital Selective Calling helps to reduce our response times and create a more efficient use of resources," Lockhart noted.

Alaska and Western Rivers

Facing new challenges in deploying Rescue 21 amid the unique geography of Alaska and the Western Rivers, the Coast Guard will develop its own tailored solutions for its sectors in these areas using a modified version of the Rescue 21 system.

For the Western Rivers, the Coast Guard will use a modified version of Rescue 21 to recapitalize legacy equipment. The process will refit 49 existing sites along these heartland waterways, replacing older VHF radios and antennas as well as adding a second VHF channel capability to allow two simultaneous calls.

"We are also going to address coverage gaps in three areas," Lockhart said. "The greatest challenge we face for Western Rivers is that these sites will remain operational while we do our work. It will take a great deal of cooperation between the sector sites and the work teams."

The Coast Guard is in the contract deployment phase for the Western Rivers and will soon release a request for proposal for the design and installation of the Rescue 21 system, according to Lockhart. The service anticipates making a contract award in late 2012.

In Alaska, site work has already begun, and, in September 2012, the Coast Guard awarded a $7.8 million contract to Motorola for 31 communication consoles that will be used to interface with existing and potential future remote tower sites.

In the southern portion of Alaska, the Coast Guard has identified more than 30 critical areas where expanded VHF-FM communications capability will be installed. The remoteness of these locations presents significant challenges, including weatherproofing the equipment and ensuring power availability even under the most severe conditions.

"The Coast Guard has been experimenting with alternative power sources, such as solid oxide fuel cells and wind generated power, to support Rescue 21 functionality in Alaska," said Capt. Patricia McFetridge, Rescue 21s project manager.

Finding reliable power sources to service each tower is one of our greatest challenges. Sites are very remote, and due to extreme weather you only have a limited window of opportunity to get out there and service them. With wind generated power, the problem is that some of the turbines are actually being ripped off the mountainside due to severe high winds, McFetridge said. Still, anything we can do to get the cost of power down will certainly benefit us in the long run.

The Coast Guard plans to complete work on the Western Rivers sectors in 2014 and Alaska sectors in 2017.

Source: “Rescue 21 Now Covers Continental U.S. Coastline; Deployment Continues in Alaska and Western Rivers,” United States Coast Guard News Release, 11/28/2012