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Left: A helicopter helps with the installation of a Rescue 21 remote fixed facility tower on Marmot Island in Alaska. Right: The Coast Guard installed equipment sheds at each facility to house the power, computing and communications equipment for each tower. The facility pictured is in St. Croix. U.S. Coast Guard photos.

Coast Guard Completes Rescue 21 System

Oct. 31, 2017

The Coast Guard accepted the final tower in the Rescue 21 system Oct. 10, completing a more than 20-year design and installation process that improved search and rescue communications infrastructure throughout the U.S. and its territories.

The Rescue 21 system provides search and rescue radio communications and supports digital-selective calling (DSC), which allows boaters with properly installed equipment to transmit an automated distress signal, including vessel location and other information, at the push of a button. It also features high-quality audio recording and playback to help watchstanders better understand distress calls and includes the ability to monitor multiple channels simultaneously.

The system is now operational along the coasts of the contiguous United States; Hawaii; Puerto Rico; Guam; the U.S. Virgin Islands; the Northern Marianas Islands of Saipan, Tinian and Rota; in parts of Alaska; and in much of the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio rivers and their major tributaries.

Rescue 21 Program efforts began in 1995 as a replacement for the National Distress and Response System (NDRS). Rescue 21 offers significant technological improvements over NDRS and gives watchstanders much better sound quality and more information on distressed vessels. “Rescue 21 is a quantum leap over the NDRS system,” said Cmdr. Kenneth Eller, Rescue 21 deputy program manager. “It has expanded the coverage and added capabilities such as DSC, internet protocol-based communications, direction-finding, as well as an overall technical refresh of a greatly outdated communications system.”

During the first phase of installations, the Rescue 21 Program installed the system on both coasts of the continental United States and on several island territories. That effort was completed in 2015. Rescue 21 was also completed in the Western Rivers region of the United States in June 2017.

The Alaska phase of the program posed the most difficulties because of the extreme weather conditions and logistics challenges involved in installing equipment in remote locations. “Alaska is a unique area with geographic, technology and weather challenges not seen anywhere else in the nation,” Eller explained. “A hybrid system of microwave, terrestrial and good old-fashioned analog telecommunications solutions had to be employed to meet the challenges posed in the Alaska area of responsibility.”

Several of the towers there were built on mountaintops to provide the best possible reception, and material and personnel had to be transported by helicopter to the build sites. “Sometimes crews had to remain on mountaintops for days on end in order to complete system upgrades,” Eller said.

Rescue 21 has proven its worth, having supported more than 98,000 rescue cases. In one incident that highlighted the unique capabilities of the Rescue 21 system, a fisherman was rescued after 12 days missing at sea. The fisherman’s radio antenna had been lost in a storm, and in desperation he used a shirt hanger as a makeshift replacement.  He managed to send a momentary distress call, but it was too garbled for Coast Guard watchstanders to discern his location. However, the call was picked up on several Rescue 21 towers, and the system’s direction-finding technology identified his position. The Coast Guard diverted a nearby Navy vessel, and the fisherman was rescued.

While the deployment of the system is complete, the Rescue 21 program still has work to do. Currently they are reviewing open and pending contracts to finalize them before the program is closed out. The team is also working with Rescue 21 operators and maintainers to fully transition responsibility for the system to the sustainment community and with the National Archives to ensure that program documents are preserved and categorized properly.

For more information: Rescue 21 program page