Coast Guard unable to monitor VHF channel 16 New contractors hired for repair

Dec 27, 2019

Due to mass tower failure, the U.S. Coast Guard has been unable to monitor VHF distress channel 16 for months.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Vessels all over coastal Alaska have been without their trusted source of contact with the U. S. Coast Guard for months. The Coast Guard's VHF-FM reception towers are degraded and calls on VHF-FM Channel 16 are not being received by Coast Guard communication centers.

According to Coast Guard Public Information Officer Lieutenant Scott McCann, about a third of the 34 VHF Coast Guard towers are down in Alaska right now. The outages are affecting the area around Homer, the Barren Islands, Chugach Islands, Kachemak Bay, Southern Cook Inlet, and Kennedy Entrance. Cape Gull, Northwestern Afognak Island, Cape Douglas, and Shelikof Strait.  

The Coast Guard first publicly acknowledged the problem in October, although they did broadcast automated notices this past summer to mariners. Lt. McCann spoke with KBBI’s Kathleen Gustafson. He says repairing these remote towers isn’t a simple task. 

Lt. McCann:

I believe the issue with our towers is aging infrastructure in remote locations that don't have access to the outside world to get to almost all of our towers requires the use of a helicopter. There are such remote locations that they have to provide their own power. Is it just a constant thing, a cycle of repair.

KBBI:
How long has this issue been going on?

McCann:
The issue has been going on since we've had the VHF tower. I don't think there's ever been a time where all of our towers have worked. There's a number of factors that can cause a radio tower to go down. The solar panels are pretty reliable, but they also run on diesel generators, which can go down. They have  battery banks, which can go down. The huts themselves can be compromised. The towers can be compromised. The radio antennas on the towers can have issues. Some of them have a parts that are so old that they're no longer made anymore, so we got to either upgrade the whole entire unit or we got to go find uncommon way to get a part that's no longer made. When it does go down, we'll send out a broadcast on the towers that are working to let mariners know that we have a loss of coverage in a particular area. In order to fly the helicopters up to the top of the mountain, they have to be able to see the mountain.  KBBI:
So channel 16 is working for all the mariners. We can notify people in our area if we're in distress, but the coast guard can't monitor those channels. How can people out there on the water access the coast guard when they need help?

McCann:
Yeah, you got that right. The VHF system in the areas that are down means that we will not hear a VHF radio call, but if you call on a VHF radio, and this is why it's a good reason to have one of those, is that anybody within range of that radio can hear your communication. And channel 16 is the international hailing and distress frequency. So if you communicate on channel 16 which is what everybody is tuned into, anybody within range will be able to hear and they can relay that request until it can get to somebody that can contact the coast guard.

And another thing is there's a digital selective calling called, it's DSE, it's a part of VHF. Even when a tower goes down somewhere, if you transmit distress over on DSE and that tower is down, it will bounce to other boats in the area that are within range that have DSE, and it will continue bouncing until that signal gets transmitted to the Coast Guard. And this is a little bit tricky. There's like a distress switch that they can push on the radio, but you have to set it up beforehand and you have to have it registered. You want to have multiple means of notifying people anyway. You don't want to rely on any one system. It's a good idea to have an HF radio. A lot of our commercial fishermen have those. And, satellite means of communication, either a sat phone, which admittedly is relatively expensive or like an emergency position indicating radio beacon.

KBBI: An EPIRB?

McCann:
Yep, EPIRB  or a PLB a personal locating beacon. Also, you know, basic stuff like filing a float plan.

KBBI:
In terms of Cook Inlet, Afognak, the areas around Homer, is there a timeline or a list to get on to be repaired? Or are you just waiting on weather in parts.

McCann:
Another nuance to this story is that we just changed contractors. We were with Lynxnet through December 11th and then December 12th we got a new contract with Silver Mountain. Obviously want them all fixed as fast as possible, and given the constraints, the contractors are working as fast as possible.