What the Coast Guard Wants Us to Know

In preparing seminars, medical safety audits and team trainings, I have contacted various United States Coast Guard facilities with the questions I’ve had. At the end of each conversation I’ve always asked this: What would you like boaters to know to make your job easier? Here is what they shared:

Wear Your Life Jacket

Wear your life jacket. Please.
Photo courtesy Shelly Galligan.

It seems so simple, yet how many of us are actually doing this regularly? If you went overboard in the dark wearing an auto-inflatable vest, such as a Spinlock or Mustang, and it didn’t auto-inflate, do you know where the manual inflate hose is by feel? If not, please go check right now. I’ve asked every one of my crew mates to close their eyes and show me where the manual inflate hose is on their vest. Guess how many have gotten it right?

It is said in Safety at Sea courses that if we go overboard, we go with only what we have on. What’s in the pockets of your PFD? Do you have a whistle and a water activated strobe or waterproof flashlight in your pocket? Blowing a whistle requires less effort and the sound carries much better over water than the human voice. I’ve heard it said many times before in an MOB situation that the rescuers were able to find the PIW because of their whistle and light.

According to Mario Vittone, retired Coast Guard rescue swimmer, safety at sea expert, maritime risk consultant and all around good egg, “If those left aboard lose sight of you, there is a 40 percent chance you will never be seen again — dead or alive.” That is a sobering statistic! Please wear your life vest and pack the pockets well.

Make Your Initial Distress Call Long Enough for the Coast Guard to Triangulate Your Position

The US Coast Guard uses software called Rescue 21 to help them pinpoint your location. They can begin to locate you within just a moment of you opening your mic, but have the best chance of accurately obtaining your exact location if the mic is open for at least 10 seconds. The longer it’s open the more towers obtain the signal and the better the data for finding you.

Here is an example script I created for medical emergencies to make it easier to know what to say when it’s hitting the fan. We don’t need to spend any energy deciding if our emergency is a May Day, Pan Pan or a Security call. The CG will assign it the proper category. Providing a succinct summary of the information that the CG requires will help them to get us exactly the type of assistance we need as quickly as possible, and also it will help us from having to answer a zillion questions when we’re likely standing knee deep in alligators. I love great teamwork and a win-win situation.

If You Key Your DSC Red Button, Make a Verbal VHF Call as Soon as Possible Afterward

The DSC radio is a fabulous tool to get attention when there is an emergency. It does not, however, convey the nature of the problem. As soon as possible, make a verbal call (see script) to the USCG to fill in the details. Knowing the details allows them to send the proper rescue resources for your situation.

Register Your DSC to Get an MMSI and Connect it to Your GPS

If you don’t have an MMSI rescuers won’t know who you are and without connecting it to your GPS, they won’t know where you are. According to Tom Burden, a West Marine “West Advisor”, and coincidentally the owner of a beautiful Cal 40 I delivered for him from Hawaii to California, approximately six out of 10 people don’t register their DSC unit for an MMSI, and nine out of 10 don’t connect it to GPS! He notes in his fascinating article Enabling Your VHF Radio Safety Features, “This is an epidemic problem, as ninety percent of boaters who call the Coast Guard for emergency help have not both registered and interconnected their VHF radios, meaning that our 21st Century safety network will not work.” Our DSC is nothing more than an expensive VHF if we don’t do this! Please help the CG help you by doing these two quick and easy things.

Read Your Radio Owner’s Manual and Know How to Use It

Do this so you don’t call them accidentally from your driveway please. It happens more than you’d think and is a waste of everyone’s time and resources to follow up on these calls. In addition to being embarrassing, it could detract from someone having a true emergency.

Do Regular Radio Checks

Let’s check our VHF radios weekly to make sure that if we need them in an emergency, they’re in excellent working order. It’s frustrating and interferes with our rescue if the technology gremlins keep us from effectively communicating with our rescuers. Please keep the airways clear of unnecessary traffic by using the automated radio check stations first (24, 26, 27, 28) or use channel 9 if you must. Do not use channel 16 for radio checks.

Call on Your VHF

Coast Guard

“Invite as many people onto a sinking ship as possible.”
Photo courtesy Steve Jurvetson, Flickr.

If we want help as quickly as possible, and why wouldn’t we in an emergency, call on your VHF not your cell phone. This is the preferred method for contacting the Coast Guard. Cell phones have limited coverage and generally aren’t waterproof. If you call 911 from your cell it has to get routed all over the place. The call goes first to a dispatcher, then to a major Coast Guard sector station, then to the local station. And a cell phone call goes to only one person, the one you called. A VHF call goes directly to the Coast Guard and to all boats in the area who may be available to lend assistance. In my ER we had a rule, the Reisen Rule, named after an amazing ER doc who used to say, “Invite as many people onto a sinking ship as possible”. The more resources available to us in an emergency the better. This rule is never more true than on an actual sinking ship. Take your cell along as back up, but please don’t rely on it as your primary form of communication.

Get Trained in CPR and Basic First Aid

This is the same training your rescuers will have. All Coast Guard personnel are trained in CPR and Basic First Aid. They are not paramedics. There aren’t enough hours in the day for them to keep up on all of their required training and be medics too. On the water, we’re on our own. When we call 911 on land, someone will be to us in minutes. On the water, the time it takes for help to arrive could be measured in hours and days. Being prepared to handle medical emergencies on the water is essential. If you’d like more information on handling medical emergencies onboard with confidence, contact me.

Let’s help ourselves by helping these modern day heroes do their jobs. Heroes don’t always wear capes. In my book they wear bright orange life jackets.

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