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Rescue efforts go high-tech

Coast Guard project employs 21st-century technology in Alaska

Posted: Thursday, August 09, 2007

With the snap of a sharp salute Wednesday, the newly minted commander of the U.S. Coast Guard's Alaska Rescue 21 Project Office assumed command, and the communications post was officially launched.

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Cmdr. Joseph Calnan is the first officer to command the newest Coast Guard effort to better serve 30,000 miles of Alaska shoreline with rescue through modern communications and better tracking technology.

"This project is long overdue," Calnan said.

Rescue 21 comes online nationwide as a 21st-century remodel of the 1970s-era National Distress and Response System that failed to meet Maritime Homeland Security demands covering 95,000 miles of U.S. coastline.

The new Juneau operation center is setting up in the old Bureau of Land Management site on Mayflower Island near Douglas. The new communications office is part of a nationwide communication effort.

"It's a new solution to the age-old problem of vessels in distress," said Rear Adm. Arthur Brooks. "Almost daily we receive garbled calls, or no call. We can't settle for that."

The Coast Guard expects to improve its ability to hear and decipher garbled distress calls through improved digital recording with immediate and enhanced playback.

Annually the commercial fleet in Alaska loses 24 lives and 34 vessels within 3.8 million square miles of ocean patrolled by the 17th Coast Guard District.

Citing the loss of the Morning Dew off Charleston, S.C., in 1999, Capt. Michael Christian explained that a sailboat was in a known maritime communications hole when its crew called for help. Only a garbled burst caught rescuers' ears. Later, the bodies of the owner and three crew members washed on shore - the boat sank in 12 feet of water.

"The Morning Dew was the impetus for Rescue 21," Brooks said.

Christian said outdated equipment undermined that rescue.

"Rescue 21 will change that."

The project is expected to offer more open distress channels, improve communications between varied rescue agencies, better track cutters and increase VHF and UHF coverage at sea.

When fully deployed, technical advances in the new communications system will close 88 known communication gaps in American waters.

Calnan, the new station's commander, graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1991 and holds a master's degree in civil engineering from the University of Illinois. He served in Juneau for six years in a civil engineering detachment before being named as commander of Rescue 21 earlier this year.

Lt. Cmdr Craig Dykes said Wednesday's ceremony established a new military unit "that will harness leading-edge technology." The important work is now the responsibility of the commander and his crew, he said.

"Let's get it done," Brooks said.

• Contact Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or greg.skinner@juneauempire.com.



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