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May 01, 2013

911 on the Water

VHF radios, not cell phones, summon emergency help sooner

DSC Equation

A quick Coast Guard audit of easily accessible information shows that in 2012, among 19,787 distress calls received, about 18 percent came from cell phones. Almost 30 percent came from radios; the rest — more than half — came from land-line telephones. (Coast Guard caveat: Miscoding might occur between cell and land-line notification.)

Assuming that the estimated 48 percent total that’s referenced above originated on the water, then about 38 percent of all distress calls from the water were placed by cell phones.

“The Coast Guard is really pushing this issue,” says Jason Kennedy, executive vice president for Standard Horizon, which makes marine electronics including VHF radios. “They want more people using radios.”

But as yet, there’s no federal mandate for all recreational boaters to carry VHFs. Some see that as an impending necessity and have rallied for that cause. Others feel it represents yet another regulation and cost for overburdened leisure seekers. “It’s definitely something we strongly encourage people to have on board, but I don’t think there’s anything currently being talked about,” with regard to a regulation, says Coast Guard recreational boating-safety specialist Michael Baron.

However, by law, all newly ­manufactured VHFs must have a digital selective-calling function, which alerts the Coast Guard and other nearby boaters to a vessel in distress. But fewer than 10 percent of boaters have properly wired their VHFs to an onboard plotter so that its DSC button transmits a position. A great number of boaters also fail to obtain a Maritime Mobile Service Identity number, which helps the Coast Guard identify you and your boat, and is necessary to even use the DSC function to hail other vessels.

To help, BoatU.S. offers online assistance (boatus​.com/​mmsi) for registering, and describes all the functions of DSC through tutorials. The Coast Guard’s website (visit ­uscg.­mil and search “MMSI”) also offers a DSC PowerPoint presentation and a ­downloadable brochure on MMSI.

Easy Alternative

handheld marine radios
ICOM M92D, Standard Horizon GX1700, Standard Horizon HX851

New VHF handhelds from Standard (HX851, $269) and ICOM (M92D, $299), and a fixed-mount unit (GX1700, $229) from Standard already come with integral GPS. (Simrad and Lowrance debuted similar handhelds at press time.) Boaters don’t need to connect these units to a plotter to transmit their location when using emergency DSC.

Non-GPS handhelds cost $100 to $200; basic fixed mounts start in that range as well, but require an antenna. Either costs less than most cell phones.

“The bottom line is that the Coast Guard reminds boaters that a cell phone shouldn’t be a substitute for VHF. If they have a radio, it should have DSC capabilities and be properly registered, and they should consider some sort of emergency-locater beacon,” Baron says. “Accidents can happen quickly on the water; having layered communications leads to a higher probability that they will be saved.”