Smartphone App To Streamline Responses To Water Rescues

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Police, Fire And Harbormaster News , Coast Guard

A night-vision camera view of the M/V Iyanough aground on the Hyannisport Breakwater, taken by a Coast Guard rescue helicopter from Air Station Cape Cod. USCG PHOTO

When officials receive a call for help from a boater in trouble, the problem isn't a lack of responders; typically, the Coast Guard, harbormasters from several towns and police and fire boats get underway. A new system being put in place this summer aims to streamline and simplify the way town resources are dispatched by the Coast Guard.

The system involves a smartphone app used by town harbormasters, police or fire departments, which receives notifications from the Coast Guard allowing instant coordination among many agencies. The service, IAmResponding.com, is designed to be used during larger events that involve multiple agencies and jurisdictions, Harwich Harbormaster John Rendon said.

“All it is is a notification,” he said. Watchstanders at Coast Guard Sector Southeastern New England in Woods Hole will enter information about the emergency one time, and it will be sent by text message and email to key responders. Whether they are on patrol, in the office or at home, those responders can press a single button on their phone to indicate whether they are responding, and that information becomes available to the group.

“I think it's going to be great,” Rendon said. The system aims to reduce response times, coordinate communications, and increase the assets available for calls, he said.

The service is being coordinated by the Cape and Islands Harbormasters' Association. Chatham Harbormaster Stuart Smith said the system is designed to work in parallel with the existing Marine Task Force system developed by the Coast Guard, and it will only be used for large incidents.

“The ferry crash up on the breakwater, that's a perfect example,” Smith said, referring to the collision of the Steamship Authority fast ferry Iyanough with the Hyannisport breakwater Friday evening. The Coast Guard was joined by harbormaster crews from several towns, along with police and fire departments, in that rescue effort. In emergencies like these, the Coast Guard finds itself needing to contact many different organizations.

“They don't have time to be making all those phone calls,” Smith said. With this system, “they will be able to reach out and touch everybody with one phone call.”

The system is still being developed, but should be up and running by July 4, Smith said.

The service will be set up so that the Coast Guard originates all notifications, most likely through Woods Hole rather than by individual stations, said Senior Chief Petty Officer Corbin Ross, officer in charge at Station Chatham. Because it is sponsored by the harbormasters' association, the harbormaster in each town will be given discretion to choose which agencies in his or her town will be given access to the system. In some places, police or fire departments could be set up to receive the same notifications that the Coast Guard sends to harbormasters.

“If this works well, we're not going to be exclusionary. We'll be open to whatever agency wants to participate in it,” Smith said.

Though this has not been a problem locally, there have been instances elsewhere when one agency – like a fire department – receives a call for assistance and responds alone, without notifying other departments that might be able to help, Smith said.

IAmResponding is already in use in Rhode Island and in New Bedford, Rendon said. It could be employed not only for search and rescue operations but also for law enforcement operations, pollution responses and at-sea medical emergencies.