The second biennial SAR - The Americas conference was held in Jacksonville, Florida, March 28-30, 2001, produced by Shephard Group of the U.K.. While on the small side, the conference attracted a diverse group of policy level SAR stakeholders from the U.S., Canada, Britain and 17 other countries. There was a small exhibition area with 24 exhibitors. Equipped To Survive was invited to share space in the U.S. Coast Guard's Office of Search and Rescue booth. It was a pleasure to meet in person many of the SAR professionals who have been so complimentary of the site, and to introduce ETS to many others who might make use of our unique offerings.
The event opened with a visit to Coast Guard Base Mayport where Commander James Rendon provided quite a show for attendees. Commander Rendon's requisition for good weather appeared to have been misplaced, but gray skies didn't dampen anyone's spirits. I do suspect the locals got a wee bit tired of the weather jokes and comments by all those who traveled from colder climes looking for some time in the sun.
After a warm welcome from Admiral Thad Allen, Commander Seventh Coast Guard District, the entire base was available for tour at each attendee's leisure, including its range of boats from RIBs to cutters and tugs. Their new 47-foot. Motor Lifeboat (click for more information) was one of the big hits, even more impressive in person than one can imagine from the descriptions and photos most had seen. It is always a pleasure to see Coast Guard crews finally get the modern tools they deserve and need to complete their humanitarian mission.
Air Station Miami provided an HH-65 Dolphin helicopter and crew for ground display, attracting a constant stream of visitors who peppered pilots and the rescue swimmer with questions. A Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater HH-60 Jayhawk presented a series of hoisting demonstrations. In one series it lowered its rescue swimmer down onto the deck of a Base Mayport Utility Boat, then retrieved the swimmer off the deck via its rescue basket (image to left).
We were also treated to flybys of the Coast Guard's new MH-68A Enforcer, an Agusta A109 Power militarized armed interdiction helicopter. Inside one of the buildings a display of crew equipment for this mission, including body armor, reminded us that it's not just Mother Nature who threatens Coast Guard crews. With our focus on survival, it's easy to forget that the Coast Guard is also tasked with other missions and these six new choppers, flying as part of the USCG's HITRON (Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron) Ten, based at Cecile Field in Jacksonville, should allow it to be more productive in such pursuits.
Without a doubt the biggest news from the perspective of individual survival equipment was ACR Electronics' impending introduction of their "Personal 406 MHz Satellite EPIRB." Similar in concept to a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) that remain unavailable in the U.S. (due now only to the U.S. Air Force's incomprehensible, asinine and pedantic refusal to recognize the legitimacy of inland 406 alerts), this first of a generation of U.S. legal personal 406 MHz emergency beacons ushers in a new level of survivability for individuals.
The new beacon is based on the design of ACR's GyPSI 406 PLB, lacking only that unit's GPS interface capability. Homing capability is provided by a low-power 121.5 MHz signal. Size is 6.5 x 3.8 x 1.9 inches (somewhat wedge shaped, these are maximum dimensions), and 18.6 ounces, just a bit over a pound. Not quite shirt pocket size, but it will easily fit in a coat pocket or it can be attached to a PFD without unduly encumbering the wearer. ACR is also offering a "Survival Gear Pouch" designed to hold the PEPIRB (pronounced "PEE-PIRB," short for "Personal EPIRB," yet another new acronym to remember), as well as some additional signaling and survival gear, on your belt or PFD. As if the introduction of this new PEPIRB wasn't exciting enough news, ACR indicated they expected the street price to be less than $500! FCC approval of this new beacon is expected within weeks with deliveries beginning shortly thereafter.
The yellow polycarbonate cased PEPIRB is waterproof to 3.3 feet and will float, but not in the transmitting position as must a conventional EPIRB; it must be held upright. Also unlike a conventional 406 EPIRB, it does not include a built-in strobe light. A wrist lanyard is provided. To operate, you release the blade style stainless steel antenna that is wrapped around the unit and rotate it upright. There is a single three-position (off, test, on) flip-switch with three LEDs to indicate status. Operating life is 24 hours at -40 C, versus 48 hours for a conventional EPIRB, giving an estimated 36 hours of operation at normal temperatures. The lithium battery has a 10 year shelf life and a five-year replacement cycle. The PEPIRB must be returned to the manufacturer for battery replacement. It comes with a five-year limited warranty.
In related news on the emergency beacon front, Seimac Ltd., whose subsidiary Profind Safety Inc. just recently prompted a price war in the EPIRB market with their introduction of a $549 EPIRB, has been purchased by Chelton, Ltd. of the U.K. Chelton also owns ACR as well as beacon manufacturers Northern Airborne Technologies (NAT) and Artex Aircraft Products. Jim Hanlon, V.P. of Seimac and one of the former owners, assured us that they plan to continue with their own beacon efforts, proceeding with the direct marketing of their PRO-Find 406 beacons via the Web and at boat shows.
Artex finally woke up from a long slumber, announcing it was finally eliminating the heavy, bulky ELT to NAV Interface used in conjunction with its 406 MHz ELT, saving both the weight and installation hassles. The nav interface, which allows the beacon to transmit location coordinates received from onboard navigation systems such as GPS or an FMC (Flight Managment Computer), will now be built into the ELT.
Also being shown off at the Chelton booth was NAT's new AXIS 50 handheld GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety System) compliant handheld VHF transceiver. This is the smallest and lightest GMDSS unit we've seen to date (5.8 x 2.7 x 1.7 inches plus a 7-inch rubber ducky antenna and 0.88 lbs.). Besides the required 19 simplex international channels, it can be programmed for 10 added channels, plus it incorporates 10 weather channels. A dedicated button provides instant access to Channel 16.
Included as standard are both a rechargeable ni-cad battery for everyday use and a long life lithium battery for survival use. Batteries can be exchanged in the water. Retail price is $950 including the charger/mountable holder and both batteries.
Concorde Aerosales showed off a small 121.5 MHz beacon integrated into a digital wristwatch, sort of a poor man's Breitling EmergencY watch. It was developed at the behest of BPAmoco for BP's North Sea crews. While 121.5 satellite alerting is on its way out, it is still a viable frequency for use in man overboard alerting and personnel location.
While somewhat bulky, it's light enough that it appears that it won't be much of a bother to wear. There are obvious advantages compared to larger devices such as the Sea Marshall or ACR's MiniB2. The antenna is integrated within the device; it's not necessary to deploy an antenna, a very nice feature. How that affects detection range is a question to which nobody seemed to have an answer. Nor was a price available. We'll be following up on this as more information becomes available.
Whatever beacon is used, SAR forces still need to actually locate you via some means. Becker Avionics was showing off its SAR-ADF 517 system designed to simplify the task. This is the system recently procured by Civil Air Patrol with the first 25 units recently delivered. The system provides both text or graphic DF capability for all the normal and test beacon frequencies, including 406 MHz. It also provides 406 message decoding, including GPS coordinates when transmitted.
The somewhat bulky antenna unit, resembling in size approximately a somewhat squashed coffee can (approximately 7 inches high), also includes the receiver, resulting
in a weight of 4.4 lbs. The half-pound 3.23-inch square display and control unit is only 1.38 inches deep, allowing for easier mounting. Price is $11,000.
Breeze-Eastern presented their very neat solution to a problem that has vexed hoist operators since the first helicopter hoist was developed--how to quickly sever the cable in an emergency. Traditional solutions, be it manual or hydraulic, all require the operator to use two hands and they are extremely awkward to use, putting the operator at peril and slowing the process when time is of the essence. Hydraulic cutters are also quite heavy, always a drawback.
The Clipper 5 is based on a device developed for the Swedish military and utilizes a firearm style cartridge with a wedge-shaped "bullet" to instantly cut cable up to 5 mm thick. It is a single shot device. The forward part that includes a slot for the cable and a replaceable brass anvil is unscrewed, the cartridge inserted, and then the front part is reattached. It is single-hand operated, just reach out and snag the cable in the hook style end piece, depress the safety and squeeze the trigger. The prototype is being modified slightly before being put into production (see illustration at right). Prices will start at $5764 for one or two units, with discounts for larger quantities, and first deliveries are slated for August 2001.
LED technology is just starting to find its way into aircraft external lighting. In part this has been because the intensity necessary requires use of more than a single LED and packaging becomes an issue. Avimo Ltd. demonstrated some impressive LED based navigation lights and a beacon that feature arrays of smaller LEDs. They have already been selected for some military aircraft and the Coast Guard's MH-65A helicopter. Nav lights were shown with both rectangular and circular arrays. Special lenses assure appropriate distribution of the light where required. The "strobe" beacon was extremely impressive, almost blindingly bright even in daylight. It features six arrays of 144 LEDs each.
LEDs offer numerous advantages over incandescent lights including reliability due to their solid-state nature, extreme long life and significantly reduced power consumption. According to Avimo, they also are inherently NVG (Night Vision Goggles) friendly. There were also infrared units for covert operations. While cost puts such advanced devices out of reach for such mundane uses as personal strobe lights or life raft locator lights (although at least one lesser performing LED life raft light is in use), the technology continues to advance and the cost continues to drop. Eventually we hope to see LED based emergency signaling devices which provide equivalent or better conspicuity compared to existing devices--and we don't think it will be all that long before we do.
Bombardier Aerospace flew in one of their Canadair CL-415 twin turboprop amphibian aircraft, landing on the St. John's River directly in front of the hotel. They were there pushing the aircraft for maritime patrol and SAR use and had a model in the booth all decked out in U.S. Coast Guard colors. Unfortunately, opportunities to tour the aircraft were cut short when a serious storm (spawning numerous tornados) blew into the Jacksonville area and the aircraft had to depart soon after arriving.
EMS Technologies was demonstrating its SARMaster software, designed to ease the job of SAR controllers while speeding up rescue. While it incorporates some functions already available in other software already in use in some RCCs (Rescue Coordination Centers) in the U.S. and elsewhere, it also adds some nifty enhancements. The one that caught my eye was the ability to receive and manage COSPAS-SARSAT data in an easy and efficient manner. While we all love 406 beacon alerts for their improved effectiveness and data capability, managing them, especially as more and more are put into service, will become an increasing difficult job. Software such as this that automates much of the job and provides SAR controllers with an easy to use graphical interface could make for improved response and more lives saved.
The conference topics ranged from discussions of budgets (never enough) to informative reviews of emerging SAR technologies and current and future capabilities. The presentation that seemed to garnered the most praise was a review of Operation Lichi, the South African Air Force's SAR response to the Mozambique floods of February and March 2000 presented by Lt. Col. Jaco Klopper (Retired) who then commanded the task force. The extraordinary effort and immensity of the task was well documented and both successes and problem areas addressed. The images of the victims and rescues were moving. It was the sort of presentation that was both simulating and provided lessons learned for those attending to bring back home.
Unfortunately, not all the presentations were quite up to this same standard and a few degenerated into not even thinly veiled sales pitches for the presenter's products or company. More than a few attendees commented negatively about these presentations that seem to have become all too common of late. It was a complaint also voiced at last Fall's Rotor & Wing sponsored SAR conference. While Shepard reportedly vetted the presentations, they either didn't do a very good job, or are slipping up.
Lt. Commander Paul Steward of the Coast Guard's Office of Search and Rescue presented what could be considered as the next generation of satellite alerting, the Global Personnel Recovery System (GPRS) and its civilian counterpart, the Distress Alerting Satellite System (DASS). This system is to be installed on the next generation of GPS satellites re-using existing space and hardware from a defunct program, lowering cost and accelerating deployment, though even so initial operating capability will not likely occur earlier than 2009 with the system fully operational about 2015.
The government will be provided lots of advanced capabilities to aid combat survivors and law enforcement activities. For the civilian side, it will provide near instantaneous alerting and location from 406 MHz beacons throughout all of the Western Hemisphere and its adjacent ocean as well as northern Europe and Asia with just two new ground stations in the U.S. Five stations total would provide 100% worldwide coverage. This compared to the present 5 and 40 stations, respectively. It will be 100% backwards compatible with all current COSPAS-SARSAT beacons, but new beacons will also be able to take advantage of two way digital messaging. The combination should provide vastly improved civilian SAR response and much lower false alerts (because of the two-way communications) at an absurdly low cost (for a government program) since the military is covering the biggest part of the expense for its own uses.
Shepard experimented with providing attendees a CD-ROM with each presenters' PowerPoint presentation included, which is a capital idea. Now if we could just get all of them to send theirs in soon enough to be included.
The next SAR - The Americas conference is scheduled for 2003. Shepard will put on their biennial U.K. SAR event that alternates years with the U.S. event, Search And Rescue 2002, in London, England. Hopefully they will not again make the mistake of selecting a newly opened hotel like the Adam's Mark Jacksonville that was not completed and was so poorly prepared to host attendees that it very nearly defies description and strains credibility. Suffice to say that things were so bad that this reporter and many others did not pay a penny for their entire stay. Even for this penny-pinching reporter, paying for adequate service and a clean, quiet room would have been preferred.
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First Published: April 4, 2001
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