Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nicole J. Groll
“Mariners in the vicinity of Great Point Nantucket Sound, be on the lookout for three persons in the water…”
Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Anderson sat in the center of his desk and manned a 4-monitor computer station, concern for the three distressed people in the water off Nantucket, Massachusetts, showed on his face. He bent over the radio microphone making sure his voice came through loud and clear.
After a long silence, a voice answered. Anderson, an operations specialist in the command center at Coast Guard Sector Southeastern New England in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, breathed a sigh of relief.
The crew of nearby vessel, Lisa B, saw the three people in the water off Great Point and was preparing to save them.
Though their voices are always heard over the radio and they save countless lives behind the scenes, Coast Guard operations specialists are rarely seen by the maritime community they serve.
The Woods Hole command center is run by four people on a 12-hour duty shift: the communications unit watchstander, the situational unit watchstander, the operations unit controller and the command duty officer.
The communications unit watchstander is responsible for manning the radio where almost all search and rescue responses begin.
The person behind the radio has the skill to decipher distress calls from the rest of the airwaves that comes though on VHF-FM channels 16, 21, 22, and other Coast Guard working frequencies.
They must try to ascertain four pieces of information that are imperative to the beginning of every search and rescue case: the nature of the distress, how many people aboard, a description of the boat, and the vessel’s position.
“It can be difficult because we pick up radio chatter from other areas, and those calls are fielded through other Coast Guard units,” said Anderson.
The operations unit controller takes all the information from the communication watchstander and plans a comprehensive search plan.
“As the operations unit controller I have to know all the areas each station is responsible for, their assets and capabilities and determine what unit will respond to each emergency safely,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Michelle Crocker, an operations unit controller in the command center.
The command duty officer is in charge of the watch and signs off on all of the operations unit controller’s actions. During confirmed missing person cases, when location information is often scarce, the command duty officer can request permission to ping the person’s cell phone to try to obtain the location of the missing person and even look at bank records or anything else of significance to gain information about last known locations. This allows for a more accurate search and increases the chance of bringing missing mariners home to their loved ones.
The Coast Guard has an array of methods and assets at their disposal to assist mariners in need. Coast Guard command centers don’t only coordinate Coast Guard vessels to conduct rescues.
For example, during the case in Nantucket Sound, the Coast Guard watchstanding crew worked with a local fishing crew to rescue three people in the water. The nearby Lisa B arrived on scene and pulled an 8-year-old boy, his 35-year-old mother and a 40-year-old man from the water. They were brought to shore and met by the Nantucket harbormaster and local emergency medical services.
Seemingly dramatic days like this are routine for Coast Guard operations specialists who strive to keep mariners safe from behind the scenes.
When the shift was over, Anderson and Crocker turned the watch over to the next crew of oncoming watchstanders to man the microphones and keep an ear in the airwaves.