CG Adopts System to Help Locate Boaters Via Their Cell Phones

First Coast Guard District command center crews from Maine to northern New Jersey have a new tool to help them locate boaters in distress.

It’s called i911, and it allows watchstanders to use a boater’s cell-phone GPS receiver to help locate them. The phone-location software, developed by Callyo Inc., is already available to first-response agencies across the country. It is a free service for all first responders, including the Coast Guard.

Depending on the strength of cell phone service, i911 can determine the location of a distressed boater up to 20 nautical miles offshore. (During a recent trial period, more than 38,000 search-and-rescue cases across the contiguous U.S. were analyzed, and it was found that 89% of all SAR cases took place within 20 miles of shore.)

Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound was first to test the system. It proved a success, and subsequently all five First Coast Guard District Sector command centers became part of the pilot program.

Challenges to the system include educating boaters on how to turn on their phone’s location feature, as the i911 system will not work without it.

The Coast Guard cautions that boaters should still carry a VHF radio or personal locator beacon on board, as cell phone service can be spotty and phones batteries can run out of power. The most reliable and traditional means of communication for mariners to use when in distress remains VHF channel 16. That said, the agency is hopeful that the i911 program will be a game-changer during the 2020 recreational boating season.