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May 01, 2013

911 on the Water

VHF radios, not cell phones, summon emergency help sooner

Safety isn’t sexy. Anglers never clamor over the latest color in a personal-flotation device. Boaters don’t compete to see who’s first to use digital selective calling. I mean, do you ever show off your EPIRB?

Marine VHF radios are made for the saltwater environment and put anglers in direct touch with emergency help.

Yet, just like a seemingly calm dog can turn vicious, so too can the ocean grow violent. Not that we should fear all pups or trips offshore, but don’t be naive or choose ignorance.

Case in point: the use of cell phones versus VHF radios for distress calls.

Boaters and anglers “have too much faith in [cell phones] as the sole means of communication on the water, especially in emergency ­situations,” U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer First-Class John D. Miller writes in a recent press release, chronicling the death of a headboat owner whose vessel sunk in the Delaware Bay two years ago. That boater waited too late to call for help on his VHF radio. He finally reached out to authorities — on his cell phone — as the vessel foundered in 37‑degree water.

The delay created as the call and the key ­information passed through an intermediary might have contributed to the man’s drowning.

The Downside

Cell phones seem capable of anything these days, and with access to navigational and weather apps, they can put real-time, valuable information in the hands of anglers on the water. But cell phones have definite drawbacks.

Unless protected by a waterproof case, they fail when they become wet. They lose their signal in certain locations, and they are no help in contacting nearby boaters unless you happen to know the phone number of someone aboard.

And while many cell phones might contain GPS, they don’t automatically transmit a position to rescuers. Nor is tracking a phone as simple as punching in a number and finding a signal on a map — as some popular television crime shows might suggest.

coast guard helicopter and boat
Time is critical when real disasters strike on the ocean. Make sure you properly register your VHF and connect it to your plotter to enable digital selective calling. (COURTESY OF U.S. COAST GUARD)

In fact, locating a cell signal can be very involved, Miller writes. “We don’t have that capability in our command centers, and that information is not easily obtainable from the cell phone companies — if they do have it — because of privacy concerns. All this research takes time, and during this process, things are happening on the water.”
At one time, the Coast Guard did promote the use of a *CG shortcut on cell phones to hail search and rescue. But in 2006, the agency asked all providers (except those in Alaska) to discontinue the feature — which had never become universally accepted — and it began encouraging VHF use

At the same time, the Coast Guard was ramping up its Rescue 21 system, which uses direction-finding equipment to generate lines of bearing to the source of VHF distress signals.