A cel phone is not a marine radio

Published on Thu, Mar 14, 2002
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A cel phone is not a marine radio

A recent search and rescue case off the Washington coast highlights the concern of Coast Guard officials over the reliance that boaters place on the use of cellular telephones, and for lack of proper planning and preparation for boating trips.

Two Sequim area men had been fishing in their 19-foot boat near a popular fishing location northwest of LaPush, along the north Washington coast.

They departed for their trip in foggy conditions and the visibility never improved. The men became disoriented and realized they had less than a gallon of fuel left. They called the Coast Guard on their cellular telephone to ask for assistance in getting back to LaPush. They provided what they thought was their position and a water depth, which they read off of the boat’s depth sounder. A motor lifeboat from the Coast Guard station at Quillayute River was dispatched to assist the men. However, the water depth being reported did not coincide with their reported position so a helicopter was launched from Port Angeles to assist in the search. The searchers carefully worked through the fog in visibility as low as a quarter mile, but were unable to locate the vessel. Coast Guard personnel were able to call the cellular service provider, which was able to identify the cell tower used to transmit the call. Using that information, along with calculated drift rate for the boat, a revised and expanded search area was focused on the area around Destruction Island. The boat was located 41 miles from the original reported position, off the Queets River over 20 miles outside the search area!

If the men had made their calls to the Coast Guard using a VHF-FM marine radio, rescue personnel could have used direction-finding equipment to ‘home in’ on the transmissions, which would have reduced search time significantly. “Any other vessel in the area equipped with a marine radio would have also been able to hear their call, and offer assistance. As it was, it took nearly six hours to locate the vessel,” said Captain Jeff Pettitt, chief of search and rescue in the Pacific Northwest. “A cellular telephone is not an acceptable alternative to a VHF-FM radio. They are great to have on board your boat in addition to your radio, but your primary source of communication for an emergency situation should always be your radio. In addition to not being able to use direction finding equipment, and limiting your emergency report to only one source, cell phone range may be severely limited, particularly when operating off the coast.”

Cellular phone providers do not guarantee coverage offshore, steep shorelines may block cell tower coverage, or coverage service distance may be limited to as few as 10 miles offshore. With these limitations, cellular phones should not be relied upon as one’s sole distress communication option.

“Poor fuel management, an inadequate compass, failure to monitor their position and environmental conditions also contributed to this incident,” according to Captain Pettitt. “We understand that the men also had a hand held GPS receiver at home, which would have been able to precisely provide a position. The northwest is a great place to boat, but it can also be a hostile environment with rapidly changing conditions. Boaters should always prepare for the unexpected.”

For many additional safety tips, information on equipment requirements and safe boating courses, as well as numerous links to other safe boating partners, the Coast Guard recommends logging on to http://www.uscgboating.org..

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