Written by Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen
The sound of radio chatter filled the air, coming from marine frequencies and police scanners. The nonstop clicking of computer keys occasionally became more noticeable than the constant conversation of what would happen next. At least a dozen monitors were lit up with charts, checklists and communications.
It was a dark night with no moon, and a fisherman was missing. The people in this room hoped for a flare sighting — something to help them focus the search.
It was near midnight in the command center of Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay in Philadelphia. Commissioned officers, enlisted personnel and civilian employees stood the watch together as a team. Decades of combined experience filled the room, and they relied on that experience to come up with a plan.
A 75-year-old man went fishing alone, as he frequently would, about 17 miles off the coast of Barnegat Light, New Jersey. His wife contacted the Coast Guard on the evening of Friday, May 16, when he didn’t return home as scheduled.
As the weekend began, multiple Coast Guard crews jumped into action, conducting the search patterns assigned by Sector Delaware Bay.
Tom Peck, a civilian watchstander in the sector command center, spent 23 years of his life as an active duty Coast Guardsman. He served 11 years as a civilian employee, the past five of which have been on the mid-watch.
He looked at numerous factors — wind, currents and time, among many others — to develop a search pattern. The search was conducted by sea and air using various aircraft and boats, proving Coast Guardsmen truly do not stand the mid-watch alone.
Lt. j.g. Jonas Miller, a command duty officer in the sector command center, grew up in Pennsylvania. He said it’s been nice being stationed close to home and the area familiarization has been easier, but the reason he joined the Coast Guard is search and rescue.
“It’s all about choosing the right asset for the right search at the right time,” said Miller. “As far as doing this job in the middle of the night is concerned, you’re ready to go when the call comes in. If I’m here late night and a case happens, I’m in a different state of mind than I would be at home.”
Miller and Peck coordinated with the command center at the 5th Coast Guard District in Portsmouth, Virginia, and they requested a C-130 aircrew from Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, to conduct more search patterns for the missing boater. They’re also coordinating a smallboat, two cutters, a helicopter and a fixed-wing aircraft for the search, which was based on very little real information. All they knew is what they were told: the man was fishing about 17 miles offshore.
Nearly 11 hours after the case began, the Coast Guard located the missing boat. Tragically, the 75-year-old man was not in it. The search continued well into the next day, but the man was never found.
“The Coast Guard trains and prepares for search and rescue response; however, mariners must take steps to ensure their personal safety,” said Lt. Roy Cromer, the command center chief at Sector Delaware Bay. “Filing a float plan with a trusted friend, purchasing and registering an emergency positioning-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB), and carrying a VHF radio on board will help take the search out of search and rescue. Additionally, wearing a life jacket will keep you afloat if you fall overboard.”
Coast Guard men and women in command centers across the country are standing the watch, ready for the call. Whether it’s noon or midnight, the watch never stops ticking.