Coordinated Chaos

By Petty Officer Lauren Downs

When the call comes in for the Coast Guard to search for a fishing vessel lost at sea in sub zero temperatures with howling winds kicking up 20-foot swells, there isn’t time for hesitation or uncertainty.

Coordinating the boats and aircraft involved in a large search in New England or New York is the responsibility of the Coast Guard First District Command Center, housed in the eight-story John Foster Williams building in Boston’s financial district.

Inside the command center, groups of three people work around the clock in a small windowless room to coordinate hundreds of Search and Rescue missions, law-enforcement operations, and other U.S. Coast Guard activities. The watch standers gaze at computers with multiple screens, each displaying different maps, grids and data and use phones with up to five individual lines, all while speaking what sounds like a foreign language of acronyms and Coast Guard jargon.

They are responsible for an area that covers roughly 2,000 miles of shoreline from Maine to New Jersey. And along that lengthy area, nearly anything is possible.

Though the command center staff handles a myriad of activities, their formal training is primarily for SAR.

“That’s our bread and butter,” said Lt. Cmdr. Kendall Garran, the command center supervisor. “We are the search and rescue experts.”

The command center staff sees SAR cases such as medical evacuations, missing or overdue boaters, disabled vessels, collisions, flooding boats, electronic mayday calls, fires and man-overboard cases.

Local Coast Guard units typically coordinate small SAR cases, but the Boston command center handles complex missions such as aircraft emergencies or mass rescue operations.

Garran said that while the cases can be quite complex, only three watch standers are needed to coordinate responses.

Each of the watch standers goes through an extensive qualification process to learn the routine immediately after reporting for duty at the command center.

The watch standers are divided into three tiers based on training and experience. The qualification process takes anywhere from six weeks to four months and includes on-the-job training and, for some watch standers, SAR school.

The training is important because the watch standers are tasked with things such as coordinating long-term searches and overseeing responses by local units, said Lt. Adrian Harris, a recently qualified SAR coordinator in the command center.

“I always tell my newly qualified watch standers, ‘Congratulations! You’re minimally qualified,'” Garran said, adding that experience is crucial.

“Nothing can take the place of running actual cases,” said Harris.

Garran said that it is not uncommon for Coast Guard men and women to come into work at the command center and begin with a slow, quiet day that quickly and without warning turns into a wildly busy day with multiple SAR cases.

“You rely on your team a lot when it’s busy,” said Harris. “It’s important for situational awareness to think out loud and discuss different approaches to each case.”

“The winter is relatively slow overall, but when you do get a SAR case it will typically be a pretty big one,” Garran explained. “In the summertime, it’s insanely busy but often times its smaller things. It’s a different kind of search and rescue between summer and winter.”

As the summer SAR season looms ahead, three new watch standers are trained and ready for the busy time of year.

Harris said she’s excited.

“On my first day of watch a fishing vessel went down,” she said. “At the end of the day, I called and told my mom I helped save three lives. It’s a good feeling.”

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