Cell Phone Data Helps Coast Guard Speed Searches

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A voluntary i911 program lets the U.S. Coast Guard access mariners’ cell phone locations to help rescue crews find them faster. The software is a free service for all first responders. The Coast Guard center in the Northeast was the first to test the system last year and it recently expanded it to the rest of the service, reported the Associated Press.

“It greatly decreases the time we spend looking for someone and gets the rescue crews out faster,” said Chief Petty Officer Andrew Case from the Coast Guard center in Woods Hole, MA. The i911 program requires someone who needs help to provide a phone number, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Nicole Groll. Then the mariner — say a kayaker or commercial fisherman — receives a text message to authorize sharing the phone’s GPS location services with the Coast Guard.  

Once you opt in, the Coast Guard can access detailed information to narrow a search. “Now we know where you are and we can send our rescue services directly to you,” Groll said.

The system doesn’t take the place of a VHF radio, which remains the best way of communicating in an emergency, she said. The system only works if mariners have enabled the location services on their phones.

Depending on the cell phone service, i911 can determine locations of distressed mariners from up to 15 to 20 nautical miles offshore. During the pilot period, more than 38,000 search and rescues across the contiguous U.S. were analyzed, and 89 percent took place within 20 nautical miles of shore, according to the account.

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