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Coast Guard meets with police, fishermen regarding response

March 8, 2012

Coast Guard officials met with area fishermen and law enforcement to discuss newly updated procedures and protocols in regards to ocean safety and rescue operations.

NARRAGANSETT—United States Coast Guard representatives from the local Point Judith Lighthouse station and the Sector Southeastern New England station at Woods Hole, Mass. met with area fire and police departments, as well as the local fishing community, on Monday to discuss response procedures.

The Coast Guard has updated their response capabilities and protocols in regards to incidents occurring on the sea, and officials gathered at the Boat Station in Galilee to inform local fishermen and law enforcement of the changes which have been made in recent years.

“This is a good opportunity to touch on more significant incidents that might occur and to give [the local community] an idea of what actions we might take and for better communication, hopefully clearing up any misunderstandings that might happen,” said USGS Captain Verne Gifford.

“We want to make sure that if ever there is a crisis, we all act as quickly as possible because seconds count.”

Lieutenant Brian Swintek, Command Center Chief of Sector Southeastern New England, gave a presentation on the recently developed computer program used by the Coast Guard in order to locate missing persons at sea. The Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System (SAROPS) compiles a number of real-time data about a particular incident and its surrounding environment and sends it to the USGS Command Center at Woods Hole in order that the staff there can send out proper equipment and calls to local response stations.

“SAROPS is a program that takes multiple probable mathematical locations and gives us the most probable location of a person,” said Swintek. “If I fell into the water, I can take information based on my size, weight, and the surrounding weather conditions, put it into the computer system, and predict where I am.”

SAROPS was utilized most recently in August when a man and a woman were swept off of the rocks near Narragansett Town Beach. After implementing SAROPS, multiple rescue vehicles were dispatched according to the severity of weather conditions, at the time 20-25 knot winds, and a survivability index was calculated in relation to long the search could go before finding the victims.

“When we get that 911 call, the first thing we do is issue an urgent marine information broadcast, and then we start launching our assets, calling various stations,” said Swintek. “The computer process tells us where a person will be, or a search pattern which gives us a probability of success.”

“Different search areas are generated as time goes on and we try to get full coverage of everything,” he added.

A Coast Guard helicopter arrived at the scene at 3:30 a.m. on Aug. 29, along with a 47 foot motor life boat, launched from the Coast Guard station in Point Judith. The helicopter crew located and hoisted the woman from the water approximately 30 yards from shore, while the man had reached the shore safely on his own earlier.

“We work pretty well with our Coast Guard guys and try to use their eyes on scene to verify what we see on the computer, making sure the patterns make sense,” said Swintek.

Swintek also discussed the benefits of new technologies employed by the Coast Guard, such as VHF radio systems which incorporate Digital Selective Calling (DSE).

“DSE radios have a red or yellow button, which is help, like a panic button,” said Swintek. “One needs to hook it up to a GPS and register it, but it takes more time to get onto Yahoo mail than to register.”

“A DSE radio shoots out a signal and relays it off of any other boat with a VHF DSE, grabbing on to your radio and sending that signal out to other boats,” he added. “Like lightning, your signal is at the Command Center. We will get them from Florida, Maine, and Canada, and we can take thus plot a position and launch assets to respond. It is a really good tool.”

Other opportunities for the local fishing community to better prepare themselves for marine incidents such as sinkings or oil spills were outlined, including the training certification program directed by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA). By completing the NASBLA program, for example, fishing vessel operators can receive search patterns from the Coast Guard’s SAROPS.

“It is a great course,” said Narragansett Harbormaster Jack Downey. “I was in the Coast Guard for 40 years and learned more about search patterns in 32 hours. Sometimes we get away from procedure, but I strongly recommend the program.”

Captain Verne Gifford presented protocols for major rescue operations, as well as the Coast Guard’s recovery and mitigation procedures for oil spills. Coast Guard personnel out of Sector Southeastern New England at Woods Hole have been training almost bi-weekly in order to be prepared for a potential major rescue, such as a large passenger ship sinking.

“We have been drilling for the past several months so that we are ready for mass rescue operations, like a fire on board or a vessel grounding,” said Gifford. “We have run through these exercises to make sure we can respond quickly.”

“Every time we have a drill, we try to bring in more municipalities because it helps us with our response, making sure all the other responders know what they have to do,” he added. “When you are evacuating multiple people, accountability of passengers becomes key, and we hope to avoid having to rescue the rescuers.”

Local fishermen who attended the presentation appreciated the Coast Guard’s effort to communicate with local safety officials and the community at large, as well as update them on updated response systems.

“It is helpful to understand the resources that are available to us and engage folks responsible for responding,” said Rick Bellavance, President of the Rhode Island Party and Charter Boat Association. “I am a big fan of a community-based approach where we all know each other and recognize everyone’s capacities.”

“If we know only what we know in a bubble, we may jump to conclusions about things we are not aware,” he added.

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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