Many mariners are unaware that for months, they have been out of touch with the Coast Guard in the case of an emergency. Alaska’s far flung, remote VHF towers are old and in bad shape and calls on Channel 16, the international distress frequency, are not being received by Coast Guard communication centers.
And while other mariners in range can hear and relay a VHF message, the Coast Guard cannot. The reason? Nearly one third of Alaska’s 34 VHF towers are down right now.
Lyle Kessler is the Seventeenth District External Affairs Officer.
“There’s the immediate problems when towers go down unexpectedly. And there’s long term issues that we’ve had with the power generation and in the microwave links. So the towers are on remote sites, which are high up on mountain tops, because VHF works off of line of sight. So these remote sites, you can’t just hook up into a power grid like you can in the Lower 48. They all have remote power generators, which need replacement.”
The Coast Guard told KBBI in Homer that VHF outages are affecting regions near Homer, the Barren Islands, Chugach Islands, Kachemak Bay, Southern Cook Inlet, and Kennedy Entrance. Cape Gull, Northwestern Afognak Island, Cape Douglas, and Shelikof Strait.
A new contractor is on the job, Kessler says, and they are prioritizing repairs.
“They’re obviously limited in their capacity; they can’t go out and fix all the sites at once. So we’re working with a contractor to triage–okay, get to these sites first, if you can. So time will tell how well this new contractor can help repair these sites as they as they go down, the sites that are currently down, and we will also be working towards that longer term solution of replacing the power generation at these sites as well.”
Meanwhile, Kessler says all mariners should have back up plans.
“If you’re in an area where you have cell phone reception, you can call those command centers if you need help from the Coast Guard. Or if you have satellite communications, you can call those numbers. Or if you’re in distress, activate your EPIRB if you have any on board, or use your Inreach device or other means of communication.”
Kessler adds whether or not the VHF channel is working, always let someone know where you are going and when you will get back.
“Always file a float plan with someone that you know, so that if you don’t come back when you’re expected they can let us know.
Thanks to the assist from KMXT in Kodiak.