Written by Chief Petty Officer Sara Muir
Communications are vital to survival. Never more so than when you call for help on VHF Channel 16 the international hailing and distress frequency.
Rescue 21 enhances the older VHF Mayday monitoring and response system created in the 1970s. It combines state-of-the-art command, control and emergency response using both automated and human-assisted communications, and computer and radio direction-finding systems. The goal is to significantly reduce response and search time while extending coverage out to a minimum of 20 miles from shore. It coordinates responses with other federal, state and local first responders, in addition to the Coast Guard.
The service accepted the final tower in the Rescue 21 system, Oct. 10, 2017, completing a more than 20-year design and installation process that improved search and rescue communications infrastructure throughout the U.S. and its territories.
Guam is a U.S. territory nearly 6,000 miles to the west of the mainland United States. It became a part of the U.S. following the Spanish-American War and is home to about 163,000 people. Rota, known as the friendly island, is the southernmost of 22 islands that make up the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, inhabited by 55,000 people. Saipan, Rota, and Tinian are the principal islands. CNMI was granted to the United States by the United Nations in 1947 as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific, and the people voted to be a commonwealth in 1975 which became fully active in 1986 when the trust dissolved. There are elements of several Asian cultures, European and Chamorro influence present in CNMI. Guam, Rota, and Saipan have Rescue 21 sites.
Recently, the region was affected by Typhoon Mangkhut. The storm impacted the islands as a Category 2 typhoon Sept. 10, before strengthening to a Category 5 typhoon striking both the Philippines and later China. Guam and Rota were spared a death toll, but the storm still caused damage. It plunged 80 percent of Guam into darkness and all of Rota, falling trees, flooding areas, destroying aids to navigation in Rota and damaging the Rescue 21 VHF and microwave radio sites in Guam and Rota that allow the Coast Guard to listen for distress calls throughout the Mariana Islands.
“When outages occur we work to restore the sites as quickly as possible,” said Capt. Christopher Chase, commander, Coast Guard Sector Guam. “Any time we have an outage we carefully consider options to extend coverage, such as positioning the Coast Guard to stand a radio guard in the affected area. We also have agreements with Guam Fire and Rescue and the CNMI Department of Public Safety. We work as a team to reduce the risk to the people of the islands and still respond when they are in distress.”
While coverage is restored, work remains to ensure the equipment remains operational. For VHF and microwave sites to work correctly, they need line of sight which means they must be high with unobstructed views. The Guam sites are in Merizo and atop Mt. Alutom which peaks at 1,704 feet. It is part of a ridgeline covered in sword grass, sugarcane, and wild orchids. Echoes of World War II can still be found here in the form of names etched into rocks and metal bits left by Japanese and American soldiers who fought here in the ’40s and the U.S. Marines previously stationed at Camp Barnett on neighboring Mt. Tenjo in the ’20s.
In Rota, the Remote Fixed Facility (RFF) is located on Mt. Sabana, the highest point on the island at 461 feet. The tower is part of local telecom operator IT&E’s infrastructure and network. The tower operates by taking the signal in at the tower, beaming it down to another microwave dish at Songsong Village and transferring to an undersea fiber-optic cable that then goes to Guam and the reverse. This happens in seconds. However, each piece, including the power generators, is critical to the tower’s successful operation. Unlike the Guam towers which have commercial power with a generator back up, the Rota tower operates on generator power at all times. All Guam, Rota, and Saipan towers also use satellite technology as a backup to the commercial microwave capability.
The towers in Guam and Rota sustained winds greater than 100 mph during the storm imparting their operation. With an emphasis on the safety of life at sea, the Coast Guard and the General Dynamics contractors went to work as soon as was safe to do so.
“All three radio sites suffered power issues,” said Jon Graeb, electronics division officer, C4IT Base Honolulu. “In Guam, contractors and Coast Guard personnel were called on to restore power to the Mt. Alutom RFF by repairing the fan belt in the generator providing back up power to the site and connections. The technicians checked and adjusted the microwave and satellite dishes as needed.”
According to Graeb, a Coast Guard information systems technician and an electronics technician from the Electronic Support Detachment in Guam departed to Rota aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Kiska (WPB 1336). The cutter crew also transported vital supplies and 1,500 pounds of food to Rota. Upon arrival to the site, they found damage to the power generation and a lack of connectivity for the signal. The technicians worked to repair the power panel and reset the existing satellite connection. Eventually, this required assistance from the Coast Guard’s TISCOM in Virginia to assist with restoring the system’s connection to the Coast Guard’s communications network. The commercial provider, IT&E, in the meantime was able to reset the primary link, and the use of the RFF restored. Work continues to boost the signal by realigning the microwave panels, but coverage of the area is re-established.
“While it is unusual, should it be necessary, Coast Guard technicians can also stand a watch at the base of the tower listening for any incoming traffic to the site,” said Graeb. “There are no services available, no hotel, it’s like camping, but it can be done.”
Some general clean up and site facility maintenance also need to be done, but the key is the restored ability of the Coast Guard to listen for those in distress. Fortunately, no search and rescue was necessary during or immediately after the storm.
“The people of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands are resilient, and we are proud to be a part of this community,” said Chase. “The Coast Guard has been in the islands for decades, and we are always ready to serve the residents and mariners of the region by bringing relevant skills and technology to the area and being responsive to their needs.”
The Coast Guard is continuing to work with partners at FEMA, federal, state, territory and local agencies to aid in recovery from storm impacts of Typhoon Mangkhut in Guam.
Many people are unaware of the Rescue 21 system. It replaces the National Distress, and Response System established more than 30 years ago as a VHF-FM-based radio communication system that has a range of up to 20 nautical miles along most of the U.S. shoreline.
Rescue 21 provides the United States with a 21st-century maritime command, control, and communications (C3) system that encompasses the entire United States. By replacing outdated technology with a fully integrated C3 system, Rescue 21 improves on the NDRS with the following enhancements: interoperability, direction-finding equipment with 2 degrees Root Mean Square of accuracy, enhanced clarity of distress calls, simultaneous channel monitoring, upgraded playback and recording feature for distress calls, reduced coverage gaps, and supporting Digital Selective Calling (DSC).
Statistics show that only about 10 percent of DSC Radio owners have programmed their radios use this lifesaving feature. The DSC feature allows you to press a single button when in distress but it MUST be programmed ahead of time with your information. Visit this Coast Guard Auxiliary article to learn about the benefits of DSC technology and how to quickly obtain your MMSI identification number and program it into your radio to be always ready.