The U.S. Coast Guard in Alaska is warning mariners and fishermen in many coastal regions to use extra caution and to have a back-up system for calling for help in the event of an emergency.
As KMXT’s Maggie Wall reports the problem stems in part from faulty power generators located in remote, inaccessible areas.
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Vessels transiting Shelikof Straight and Lower Cook Inlet, as well as Southeast and Southcentral Alaska may face VHF radio outages which prevent communications on emergency radio frequencies, and the Coast Guard is advising that vessels carry alternative ways to reach help if needed.
The problem is twofold. Getting regular repairs made when a site goes down, and the need to replace broken power generators that combined have shut down parts of the Coast Guard’s VHF system, according to Seventeenth District External Affairs Officer Lyle Kessler.
“There’s the immediate problems and when towers go down unexpectedly. And there’s long term issues that we’ve had with the power generation and in the microwave links.
“So the towers are on remote sites, which are high up on mountain tops, because like I said, VHF works off of line of sight. So these remote sites, you can’t just hook up into a power grid like you can in the Lower 48. They all have remote power generators, which they need replacement.
“And there, we have planned to replace them over time, but that it takes a while to do that. We’re working on those. And so this is kind of a twofold process. One is as they go down for different reasons, we go out and we fixed them to there is a contract that we have. And then we also have a long term solution in place to go out and place the power generation.”
Kessler says the Coast Guard had replaced a number of the old generators with what he calls ‘new technology for power generation,’ but they didn’t work out as the Coast Guard had hoped.
Recently a new contractor for repair work was hired through competitive bidding and Kessler says the contractor and the Coast Guard are prioritizing repairs.
“The new contractor’s currently evaluating, you know,’ okay, here’s what I can do. Let’s go and get a plan in place for what we’re going to address with the current sites that are down and we’re here to triage what sites are these okay? These the ones are most important to go to and fix right now.’
“They’re obviously limited in their capacity, they can’t go out and fix all the sites at once. So we’re working with a contractor to triage–okay, get to these sites first, if you can.
“So time will tell how well this new contractor can help repair these sites as they as they go down, the sites that are currently down, and will also be working towards that longer term solution I told you of replacing the power generation at these sites as well.”
In the meantime, Kessler suggested a number of ways to contact the Coast Guard if a vessel has an emergency or if they are just want to give watchstanders a heads up of a possible problem on board that they’d like monitored.
“If you’re in an area where you have cell phone reception, you can call those command centers for help if you need help from the Coast Guard. Or if you have satellite communications, you can call this number. Or you can always if you’re in distress activate your EPIRB if you have any on board or use your Inreach device or other means of communication.”
He describes what an Inreach device is.
“Enreach devices are these small handheld devices, which a lot of sporting goods stores sell them, like a two-way satellite communications device, that sometimes they can send text messages or sometimes they just have like preprogrammed messages. You can hit a button and they’ll send it.
“So you can communicate with your friends or family, or you can they can let people know what’s going on with you while you’re either hunting in the woods or if you’re out in a boat. It uses satellite communications so it has more coverage than you would with a VHF, which operates off the line of site.”
Kessler also notes something Alaskans have heard repeated. Regardless of whether or not the VHF is working. Always make sure someone knows where you are going and when you will get back.
“My only advice would be always file a float plan with someone that you know, so that if you don’t come back when you’re expected back they can let us know.
“And always carry survival equipment on board in case you end up in a situation that you don’t expect to be in. Because even when you do get a hold of us, and this is Alaska, and it could take us a while to get to you, even when you get a hold of us right away. And I mean, it’s Alaska and the environment is harsh, and it takes us a while to get to you. We want to make sure you’re as protected as you can be until we can get there.”
That was Lyle Kessler with the Coast Guard in Juneau.
Once again the Coast Guard urges mariners and fishermen transiting the Shelikof Strait, Lower Cook Inlet, and areas in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska to use caution and have a secondary communications method as there are VHF radio towers out of service in those area.
If you are in danger in one of those black holes, the Coast Guard will not receive your VHF radio call for help.
Phone numbers for Coast Guard rescue to program into your cell phone or post near your VHF radio.
- Sector Juneau Command Center at 907-463-2980
- Sector Anchorage Command Center: 907-428-4100
- 7th District command center: 907-463-2000