Updated: May 12
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U.S. Coast Guard command center crews in the Northeast states have a new way to locate vessels in distress. Called i911, the system allows watch standers to enter a cell phone number and use the phone's location data to display the location of the device on a map.
Here's how it works. Suppose that a loved one is overdue from a fishing trip. You can call the Command Center and provide them with their cell phone number. The Command Center will send a text message asking them to click a link in the message if they need help.
Once they click the link, they will be taken to a web page with a big red button to click, giving the Coast Guard permission to use the location data provided by their phone's internal GPS. The location information is then provided to rescuers, helping to take the "search" out of search and rescue.
Depending on the cell phone service, i911 can determine locations of distressed mariners 15-20 nautical miles offshore. During testing, the Coast guard analyzed search and rescue cases around the country and discovered that 89% of all SAR cases occur within 20 miles of shore.
Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound, located in New Haven, Connecticut, was the first to test the system. It was a success and subsequently all five First Coast Guard District Sector command centers became part of the pilot program. So far, the biggest problem has been teaching distressed mariners how to turn on their location services. The i911 system will not work without it.
i911 was authorized for use by Coast Guard Command Centers across the nation this past March. The First District Northeast, stretching from Maine to northern New Jersey, is the first district to utilize the system. It should be emphasized that the i911 service is no substitute for functioning VHF radio onboard. The most reliable and traditional means of communication for mariners to use when in distress is VHF channel 16. In addition, there are parts of the U.S. without cell phone service, including most of coastal Alaska.
Will you be sailing more than 20 miles offshore or heading to parts of the coast without cell phone service? In addition to your marine VHF radio, consider bringing an EPIRB or PLB device. EPIRBs are required safety equipment on many commercial vessels and either device will send location data to Coast Guard rescuers, using NOAA's SARSAT satellite system. SARSAT is credited with saving 491 lives in 2019.