Search and rescue a matter of equations

Coast Guard officers visit 6th-grade math class

Posted: Sunday, January 09, 2011

Search and rescue missions for the U.S. Coast Guard are all about quick math, equations and decision-making, a sixth-grade math class learned Friday.

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Lt. j.g. Crystal Hudak and Operations Specialist First Class Sean Terry told Jody Levernier’s students at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School why math is important and how they use it.

Levernier uses a chapter in a school math book that uses a search and rescue theme, so students had been learning the basic concepts for what the Coast Guard does.

Terry explained determining the best way to complete a search and rescue mission involves a lot of detail and equations. Angles and rays, coordinates, tables and graphs, compasses, maps, point last seen, probability zones, search grids and patterns all play into finding a distressed vessel and its occupants.

“The only reason we have equipment is to calculate things,” Terry said.

Terry gave the class examples of math used throughout the whole process of rescuing people on the water. He said one question is if the vessel is taking on water. He needs to know the approximate gallons-per-minute the vessel is taking on and he can quickly calculate how much the boat can handle before it sinks. Then he makes calculations of how quickly Coast Guard vessels, airplanes or helicopters can get there and whether they will be looking for people in the water.

“Life is a calculation,” Terry said.

One example the officers gave was of the fishing vessel Pacific Lady, which required assistance in 2007. Terry said they were given coordinates through an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon), which, when doused with salt water, sends a radio signal that reaches Coast Guard offices. He told the students they use information from that to do quick calculations to rescue people.

Terry and Hudak gave other examples, and each time showed where the vessel was distressed, which Coast Guard vehicles were available, how far away those were, how fast they could go and the distress level of the vessel. They also showed graphs of probable location. Those graphs took into account information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on currents in that area. The students saw how, as time went on, that graph expanded and shifted as to probable location for the victims. This mathematical system tells Coast Guard rescuers not only where to begin searching, but also the most probable location.

Hudak and Terry also talked about the different vehicles they use, including the cutter Munro, Jayhawk helicopters and the HC-130 Hercules airplanes, as well as a smaller helicopter. Hudak said the Munro has first-responders and a small helicopter. All of the equipment serves a different purpose in a search and rescue mission and each has its own benefits. Students wanted to know if they ever use more than one per rescue, to which the Guardsmen replied they absolutely did.

Do the officers have to remember all the equations, a student asked?

“No,” Terry said. “You don’t have to remember anything you can find in a book. But you do need to know the basic formulas and you do need to know that you need distance, speed and time. You better have studied enough to know when something is right or wrong."

Another asked if they had more cases in winter. Hudak said there are more in summer because of all the fishing vessels.

They wanted to know where the most cases happened near Alaska. Terry said in the Bering Strait and Aleutian Chain due to crab fishing.

“It’s an honorable, dangerous job,” he said of crab fishing.

A student also asked what happens when they get three calls at once. Terry said it becomes a more complicated equation because you evaluate distress levels and decide which resources go where and how quickly.

Levernier said she’s been teaching the search and rescue math section for five years, and Coast Guardsmen have come to present for four of them.

“One of our goals is to teach kids that math is used in real life,” Levernier said.

She said students had great questions for the Coast Guard and she hopes it gives students an idea of what math can be applied to.

Corey Box, sixth-grader, said the presentation made him feel more interested in the Coast Guard, but he already realized math was important prior to the lesson.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at

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