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Mayday: Use VHF Radio for Emergencies at Sea and Distress Calls

A reminder from the U.S. Coast Guard to use your VHF radio—not your cellphone—to call for help when you're in distress on the water.
Boating Safety

Greg Arlotta’s voice turned grim as the boat beneath him slipped below the 37-degree waters of the Delaware Bay in the early morning darkness of Dec. 23, 2010.

“When this [cell] phone gets wet, I’m dead,” Arlotta told a 911 operator in the Sussex County, Del., Emergency Operations Center.

Arlotta’s foreboding was prophetic. He drowned some time that morning before rescuers could reach him. Unfortunately, Coast Guard boats and helicopters were delayed precious minutes because Arlotta and the mate aboard the doomed Sea Wolf called the wrong people with the wrong technology. Instead of hailing the Coast Guard on a VHF-FM radio at the first sign of distress, they waited until that was no longer an option and dialed 911 on their cellular phones.

“911 operators do a great job, but they don’t always know the questions to ask” for a maritime search and rescue case, says Geoffrey Pagels, a Fifth Coast Guard District Search and Rescue Specialist based in Portsmouth, Va. “A Coast Guard watchstander can get the necessary information right away . . . and if he has the information in his hands immediately, there can be a helicopter spinning in 5 to 10 minutes.”

“There is no time to lose. Every moment counts. I don’t care if it’s a half a minute.”

In this case, the nearest help was at least 31 minutes away by boat and 36 minutes away by air. Pagels estimates only 67 minutes separated Arlotta from unconsciousness and then death. As hypothermia started overwhelming Arlotta’s ability to stay alert, 13 precious minutes passed as operators attempted to get the Coast Guard on the phone and pass along the appropriate information.

“Is anyone injured?” asked the 911 operator.

“No, not yet,” said Arlotta portentously.

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