Coast Guard works to improve emergency response communication process
By JOHN C. MARCARIO, Assistant Editor
When the Coast Guard responds to large-scale emergency situations where more local agencies are involved, interoperability can
present a significant challenge.
■ Along with traditional radio and satellite options, cell phones
and Internet services — such as chat rooms and e-mail — aid communications.
■ During the California wildfires last year, the Coast Guard was
the facilitator for all communications through its command center.
■ The ultimate goal “is to operate daily in the same way we would
operate in an emergency, to make the communications part of the
satellites are used for data and
voice communications, while cell
phones and Internet services —
such as chat rooms and e-mail —
aid in the communication efforts
“The Coast Guard units regularly work with their port partners
[such as local police, marine patrol
and emergency medical services]
and have established regular lines
of communications with these
entities that would be used in an
emergency response,” Bruner said.
But in large-scale emergency-response missions that require an
increased local agency presence,
additional collaboration tools are
For the U.S. Coast Guard, interoperable communications during emergency-response situations often can be more challenging than actually saving lives during those missions. In larger-scale
response efforts, when the service must work with
unfamiliar agencies, such as local emergency services
units, these challenges can become more daunting.
“Although regular partnership, frequent joint operations, pre-disaster coordination and planning, and
use of cross-banding gateways help to prevent problems, they still occur,” said Cmdr. Eric Bruner, commanding officer at the Coast Guard Communications
Area, Master Station Atlantic.
Interoperability problems can arise as a result of
electromagnetic interference, lack of Internet connectivity or radio signal incompatibility, which can be
exacerbated because many small, local agencies do not
have the funding for high-tech communications gear
and must rely on off-the-shelf equipment.
The current Coast Guard communications system
comprises a combination of high-, very-high- and
ultra-high-frequency radios. Military and commercial
needed, he said.
“Diversity is, and will be, a constant planning factor.
Adding in the systems used by civilian forces, which
use [radio] spectrum assigned only to them, adds
another layer to that system diversity factor.
Seamlessly linking diverse systems and ensuring all
players are on the same plan is the most challenging
characteristic of this approach,” Bruner said.
For example, Cmdr. Frank Pedras, who is in charge
of communications for the Coast Guard’s Pacific Area
said it is easy to communicate with the California state
fire officials because he has worked with them before.
But if something happens in a small town, where he is
unsure about the type of local communication system
in place, the challenge becomes figuring out how to
“To respond to the mission itself, in a lot of ways, is
only the first set of problems. Once you get there, you
have to find a way to communicate,” Pedras said.
During the past year, his units have responded to
the California wildfires, an oil spill in San Francisco,
and flooding in Oregon and Washington.