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McMurdo official says new satellite technology will improve search and rescue efforts worldwide


By Steve Bittenbender
Editor, Government Security News

New satellite technology is helping to reduce the amount of time it takes for search and rescue teams to locate people in distress. That’s according to an account manager with the McMurdo Group, a leading company in emergency readiness and response.

McMurdo’s Steve Waters spoke Monday at the 54th Annual SAFE Symposium in Dayton, OH. The three-day event, which concludes today, brings together military, government, academic and business leaders to find ways to increase personal safety in any environment imaginable, air, land or sea.

The company is a key contributor to the global Cospas-Sarsat system, which provides accurate information to search-and-rescue teams to locate people in distress. The technology, in use for nearly 35 years, has led to more than 40,000 lives saved. McMurdo has built more than 125,000 of the beacons registered in the system, which is used by organizations such as NASA, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Air Force.

Cospas-Sarsat has 244 points of contact around the world, with each point responsible for a specific geographic area that may be managed by multiple countries and even multiple agencies within those countries. For example, the Coast Guard and Air Force manage the U.S. portion of the system, Waters said.

For years, the system has relied on low-Earth orbit satellites not only to pick up distress signals but to enable search-and-rescue teams to communicate with each other. However, the system is in the process of moving to satellites using a medium orbit, and rescue teams have noticed an immediate difference.

Last month, a French Polynesian boat lost power with two people aboard. The medium-orbit satellite picked up the signal and confirmed the distress situation in less than 20 minutes, giving rescue teams nearly a four-hour advantage with the new technology.

Less than five-and-a-half hours after the initial beacon was discovered, rescue teams located the boat and retrieved its passengers.

In another case, a hiker in a remote part of New Zealand fell nearly 100 feet and broke his leg. It was getting close to nightfall when the incident occurred, and since the medium-orbit satellite picked up his signal just minutes after he fell, first responders were able to rescue the hiker before it became too dark.

“In many circumstances, this will make the difference between life and death,” Waters said, as he noted officials believed the New Zealand hiker would not have survived had he been stranded overnight.

It’s not just being able to pick up distress signals earlier that’s leading to improved rescue efforts, he added.

“Current communications solutions often rely on relayed communication, which can then be subject to dilution and interpretation,” he said. “When team members and survivors in the field can communicate directly to remote support groups at base/command centers, mission coordination and success is improved.

“Other elements that improve situational awareness communication include wireless systems that allow freedom of movement, the ability to use a range of communications between aircraft and team members, between team members, or between team members and base/ground-station, location tracking, and the ability to use an on-demand communication system with reliability and fit for purpose. All of these elements contribute to reducing the delay and improving efficiency in situational awareness.”

According to figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Cospas-Sarsat has helped rescue 265 people in the United States since the beginning of the year. The majority of those rescued, 175, have been extracted on the seas.


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