Boaters in distress may soon find it easier to get help on the high seas.
The Tampa Bay region will be one of the first in the United States to receive the Coast Guard's "Rescue 21" system, which proponents call a "maritime 911."
"This will take the search out of search and rescue," said Petty Officer Paul Rhynard of the Seventh Coast Guard District Public Affairs. "This is not an upgrade. It is a total replacement of the national distress system."
General Dynamics of Scottsdale, Ariz., was awarded the $611-million contract to produce and deploy the system, then provide support to Coast Guard units throughout the United States.
"This will fill in the coverage gaps in the existing VHF/FM system," Rhynard said. "And it will allow simultaneous communication on multiple channels as many as six at a time."
Boaters in need of assistance have had difficulties communicating on the Coast Guard's emergency frequency, Channel 16, without being interrupted or "stepped on" by other boaters.
Deployment of the Rescue 21 system should occur here late in the summer of 2003.
Officials expect the system to be working in all coastal waters of the continental United States by September 2005 and in all other regions by September 2006.
Other introductory areas are Atlantic City; eastern shore of Maryland; Port Angeles, Wash.; Mobile, Ala.; and Seattle regions.
The system eventually will be operational in Hawaii, Guam and Puerto Rico.
Currently, the Coast Guard uses the National Distress and Response System to monitor distress calls and coordinate search and rescue missions.
This network of VHF-FM antenna sites with analog transceivers is controlled by regional communication centers and rescue boat stations that cover about 20 nautical miles out to sea.
"The new system also will give us improved direction-finding equipment that will let us zero in with a plus or minus of two degrees," Rhynard said.
The system will help speed up search and rescue operations. Rescue 21's digital selective calling capability will be able to instantly transmit a vessel's name, location, nature of distress and other vital information in conjunction with an integrated Global Positioning System receiver and registered Maritime Mobile Service Identity number.
"This will allow us to communicate more effectively with other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies," Rhynard said. "That is important in terms of homeland security."
There are more than 80-million boaters on 13-million vessels in U.S. waters, the greatest number in the nation's history.
Each year the Coast Guard conducts 40,000 search and rescue missions that save about 4,000 lives.
NEW FACES: Group St. Petersburg has a new commander, Capt. Daniel Neptun. He will be in charge of all surface units on the west coast of Florida and coordinate all search and rescue operations and law enforcement duties.
Neptun comes to the area from Washington. Neptun started as a seaman recruit and worked his way up the chain of command.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Daniel Harris recently took command of Station St. Petersburg and will be responsible for Tampa Bay and nearby coastal waters.
Harris has been in the Coast Guard 25 years.