Coast Guard launches search/rescue site

The Coast Guard recently launched a World Wide Web site that highlights one of the agency's oldest missions: the search and rescue of boaters in distress.

As the Search and Rescue (SAR) home page (www.uscg.mil/hq/g-o/g-opr/sar.htm) explains, the Coast Guard's response to a boater in distress involves the cooperation of stations, cutters, aircraft and boats linked by communications networks. Coast Guard facilities throughout the United States as well as in Guam and Puerto Rico help the agency do its job.

The site is an effort to provide Coast Guard employees, industry and the public with access to data about the agency's SAR efforts, said Richard Schaefer, program analyst and Webmaster at the Coast Guard. Until now, there was no quick and easy way for the Coast Guard to provide SAR information in a comprehensive way or to communicate effectively with the SAR community.

"This provides easy access to [SAR] information," Schaefer said. "There are a whole range of people that will benefit, including boaters interested in search and rescue and industry people who might have ideas on search and rescue tools they want [to market]. It also helps people understand what we do."

According to the Web site, the Coast Guard aims to save at least 93 percent of those people at risk of death on water and prevent the loss of at least 80 percent of the property that is at risk of destruction on water, over which the Coast Guard has SAR jurisdiction.

While high-profile rescues are the ones that typically make the newspaper, there are many more that occur relatively unnoticed. A database of SAR statistics, which list incidents reported to the agency over a number of years, illustrates how busy the Coast Guard is. A graph shows how many incidents were reported from 1984 through 1997, along with information on lives saved and lost and on how much each incident cost. It also is possible to search for data between 1994 and 1997 based on a particular location.

The statistics database is updated only once a year, but the Coast Guard hopes to update the information in near-real time eventually, Schaefer said. "We'd like to do that. It would cut down on the time it takes to answer questions [on statistics]," he said.

Another proposed addition to the Web site would be to make available the Coast Guard's On Scene magazine, which details rescue stories and upcoming changes to policy and which covers timely topics such as the growing number of distress hoaxes.

For system information, click on the Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue (AMVER) link. Although AMVER, which is a voluntary ship-reporting system used to identify ships in distress, came into existence in 1958, it has its roots in the 1912 Titanic disaster. Ships passing within sight of the passenger liner were unaware that it had hit an iceberg and was sinking because crewmen mistakenly interpreted the distress flares from the Titanic to be part of the celebrations associated with its maiden voyage.

Today ships using AMVER can report data such as their planned travel routes and positions to the AMVER system. This data is used to produce a graphic that depicts where a ship in distress is located and where other ships are in relation to it so that a rescue can occur. AMVER tracks 100,000 voyages a year.

The site also has a page dedicated to the Interagency Committee on Search and Rescue, which is a federal interagency standing committee that oversees the National Search and Rescue Plan and other projects. And visitors can find extensive links to other organizations involved in SAR, including government agencies, international organizations and emergency-response groups.

The SAR Web site is hosted by the Coast Guard's Operations Systems Center, Martinsburg, W.Va.

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