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With i911 system, Coast Guard can use cellphone GPS data to locate mariners

After three people went out on an inflatable raft recently in Long Island Sound and couldn’t paddle back to shore due to high winds and strong sea currents, the Coast Guard used GPS data from their cellphones to pinpoint their location — about 6 miles offshore — and bring them home safely.

Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound was the first to test out the technology, called i911, which is now being used by all Coast Guard command centers in the Northeast. Once a distressed mariner contacts the Coast Guard via cellphone, the person receives a text asking him or her to click a link to share his or her location with the Coast Guard via the phone’s internal GPS, which uses satellite signals.

The technology will be especially useful when locating people on kayaks, inflatable rafts or other small vessels that don’t have VHF marine radios on board or when those radios are not working or disabled.

Lt. Anne Newton, who works at the Coast Guard Research and Development Center in New London, said mariners are increasingly contacting the Coast Guard with cellphones when they’re in distress, so the Coast Guard wanted to find a way to leverage that trend.

Newton said i911 provides search and rescuers with a “vital piece of information” to help them find mariners quicker or share that information with partner agencies who may be able to get to them more quickly.

Depending on the cellphone service, the Coast Guard said the technology can find distressed mariners up to 15 to 20 nautical miles offshore. As part of the pilot period to test the system, the Coast Guard analyzed more than 38,000 search and rescue cases and found that 89% of them took place within 20 nautical miles from shore.

May 16 to 22 is National Safe Boating Week and the Coast Guard is reminding all boaters to have some means of communication, such as a VHF radio or cellphone, on board when getting underway and to always file a float plan with someone they know, detailing when and where they're going and when and where they intend to return.

j.bergman@theday.com

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