The U.S. Coast Guard is able to use the i911 locator tool nationally, following a pilot program in First Coast Guard District Northeast. The tool enhances the Coast Guard’s ability to pinpoint mariners in distress by zeroing in on mobile phones. The tool is especially helpful in tracking mariners who may have a disabled VHF radio, or for kayakers, rafters, and other small craft users who have no VHF radio at all.
“The i911 program allows for watchstanders to use a mariner’s cell phone number to assist in finding their location for Coast Guard rescue crews to locate them faster,” Petty Officer Nicole Groll reported through a release. “Once the number is entered, the mariner receives a text message authorizing them to share their location with the U.S. Coast Guard. Once shared, the internal cell phone’s GPS, which uses satellites to pinpoint the mariner’s location, is displayed on a screen for watchstanders to aid in the search for them.”
Though the tool doesn’t reach far offshore, it turns out that’s not where most incidents occur.
“Depending on the cell phone service, i911 can determine locations of distressed mariners from up to 15 to 20 nautical miles offshore,” Groll reported. “During the pilot period, more than 38,000 search and rescue cases across the contiguous United States were analyzed, and it was found that 89 percent of all [search and rescue] cases took place within 20 nautical miles offshore.”
Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound in New Haven, Conn., first tested the tool. Subsequently, all five Northeast command centers joined the pilot program.
“The biggest challenge watchstanders at Sector Long Island Sound found was teaching distressed mariners how to turn on their location services,” Groll reported. “The i911 system will not work without it.”
“It’s really cool technology, and already helped us on numerous occasions with search and rescue,” Joshua Olsen, a command duty watchstander for Sector Long Island Sound, said in a release. “Sometimes, we just need to talk people through how to share their location.”
“During the pilot period, the i911 system assisted in bringing several mariners home, including three people on an inflatable raft,” Groll reported. “They were blown out to sea and couldn’t paddle to shore due to high winds and strong sea currents. Armed with only their cell phones, i911 pinpointed their location about six miles offshore, and rescue crews were able to rescue and bring them home safety.”
“It greatly decreases the time we spend looking for someone, and gets the rescue crews out faster,” Chief Petty Officer Andrew Case, a command duty officer at Sector Southeastern New England, said through a release.
The i911 locator tool isn’t an excuse for mariners to be without a VHF radio. “The most reliable and traditional means of communication for mariners to use when in distress is VHF channel 16,” Groll reported.