Monday, May 22, 2006

How Not To Call For Help

The last case that I had ended up with everyone safe and sound but tired because they spent the whole night on their boat. They didn't have to but they did what so many boaters are doing these days; relying on a cell phone as their only means of communication. Here's a quick synopsis of the case.

Three men ages 19-22 went out on the bay in a 35 year old 18' boat to do some fishing. Some time that night, they ran out of gas. They called 911 on their cell phone and got the Virginia State Police at 9:50 pm. They told the dispatcher that they were broken down near Langley Air Force Base and the call was lost. The call was too short for the phone information to be captured. The VSP called us and we asked Langley Fire Department to send their boat out to investigate. They didn't see anything.

Then Hampton 911 called us around 10:10 pm saying that they had gotten a call from the same guys. They got a little more information from the boat. Now we knew that they were out of gas. Hampton was dispatching their police boat and fire boat. The 911 system was unable to calculate a position of the call though. They did get a phone number and called the carrier, T-Mobile, to find out who the owner was. We got the owner's name and address but he wasn't listed in the phone book so we couldn't call his house. So here's how I found a phone number for him;
1. Looked up the address on the countie's online tax maps.
2. Identified the owner.
3. Called owner, she didn't live there. It was rented and she gave me the tenant's phone number.
4. Called tenant. The boater didn't live there but the tenant was his uncle.
5. Boater lives next door to the uncle with his mother.
6. Uncle has mother call me back.
This took about 45 minutes.

By this time, we were getting concerned that we hadn't found them yet so we launched Station Cape Charles to search. Meanwhile, I called T-Mobile again to get more information about the call. Unfortunately, the technician could only tell me that the phone was currently turned off so he couldn't "ping" it. Since the phone was roaming, he couldn't tell me what tower had picked up the signal.

The mother called back to say that she found out who might be on the boat with her son. She had a cell phone number for one of them. I called the number but got the voice mail. It is now around midnight and the area around Langley has been saturated. We request a helicopter from Elizabeth City, NC to search.

At 1:20, they call 911 again. This time, it's a different phone number that calls. It's the same number the mother gave me. I call Verizon to find out more. This time I am able to get tower information which leads me to expand the search area to part of the bay. As the helo is searching this area, they have a bird strike and have to land at Langley AFB to inspect the airframe. They are able to get back up and resume the search and find the boaters around 5:30 am. The boats are vectored in and tow the boat back to the marina.

OK, so that wasn't a quick synopsis. But it wasn't a quick case. If the guys on the boat had a VHF Marine radio and flares, this would have been a quick case. Here's why cell phones shouldn't replace a radio on a boat;

1. Cell phone companies place towers to get the best coverage over LAND not water. I've been on a boat in sight of a cell phone tower and had no signal.

2. If you call the Coast Guard with a cell phone, no one else can hear you. If you call us with a marine radio, everyone near you with a radio can hear you tell us that you are in trouble. These guys are closer to you than we are.

3. We cannot home in on a cell phone signal. We can use direction finding equipment to home in on any VHF Marine signal though.

Cell phones are a great backup but VHF Marine radio is the best way to get help while you are on the water.

Another great thing to have is towing insurance. The three companies that I know of who offer it are TowBoat US, Sea Tow and Vessel Assist. (I'm not endorsing a company here.)

The other great thing to do is file a float plan. The Coast Guard Auxiliary had a great site where you can download the form.

The Daily Press editorial board wonders if we should seek reimbursement from these guys for the search since they went out unprepared. The only figures that I have is a HH-60 helicopter costs $11,000 per hour. My "billing rate" is around $65/hour. So, we're already up to a hefty chunk of change before we add the boats.

Submitted to the Virginia Blog Carnival.

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