For more than 40 years, the Coast Guard's automated mutual-assistance vessel rescue (AMVER) system, which uses modern computer technology to relay critical distress information to participants worldwide, has coordinated these efforts. The positions of merchant vessels on passage around the world are plotted in a state-of-the-art computer system. When the position report data are processed at the AMVER computer center at the U.S. Coast Guard's Operations System Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia, an electronically generated surface picture of a particular ocean area becomes the focus of activity.
The picture is a birds-eye view of the vessels in the immediate area that are available to render assistance. Information such as type of vessel, size, speed, number of crew members, and whether medical personnel are on board gives rescue coordination personnel the facts they need to determine which vessel is best suited to render assistance. Almost 2,800 vessels are reported on a daily plot.
Countless rescues have been played out over the years using AMVER. Although computer changes have been revolutionary, the concept behind the program has not changed. AMVER's slogan remains: "That no call for help goes unanswered."
Naturally, the more vessels that join the AMVER network the better. Present membership is 12,000 vessels—40% of the world's merchant fleet. Ships from the People's Republic of China recently joined the ranks with participation by the China Ocean Shipping Company.
Operations have ranged from the single-ship recovery effort described above to the massive effort mobilized after the bulk carrier Salvador Allende sank in December 1994. The largest single AMVER operation to date involved a flotilla of 41 ships from 18 nations that converged on the rescue area over a six day period to find only two survivors from a crew of 31.
Today's system is being upgraded. A February 1999 deadline has been set for most merchant vessels to change over to the fully automated Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). Ships will report their position primarily by satellite, using electronic mail and the Internet. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard have developed compressed message software that converts plain text into binary format, relays the reports to the computer center, and reduces costs from $6 to 50 cents per report.
GMDSS-mandated equipment such as electronic position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs), digital select calling (DSC), and International maritime satellite automated alarms will provide rescue coordinators with real-time identities and positions of vessels in distress, taking the "search" out of search-and-rescue and enabling them to move directly into the rescue phase.
Petty Officer Logston wrote this while assigned to the AMVER Maritime Relations Office in New York City.