GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 11, 2009

Lack of VMS code slowed Coast Guard

Commander says they couldn't access info that could have pinpointed Patriot

By Richard Gaines

The commander of Coast Guard Sector Boston said yesterday the start of rescue efforts for the doomed fishing boat Patriot and its crew was delayed by an inability to access computerized tracking records in the vessel monitoring system.

Although the VMS is primarily used for law enforcement, the Coast Guard in Boston has used it for search-and-rescue efforts. In November, facile use of VMS data contributed to the rescue of three fishermen from a boat at sea off New Bedford.

Yesterday, Sector Boston Commander and Capt. Gail P. Kulisch said she was not aware of the November operation. But, in a telephone interview with the Times, she acknowledged that delays in the Coast Guard's response to the Patriot's emergency occurred because the distress signal came in an unorthodox manner, and the key source of information was "a fisherman's wife."

Kulisch said that, to find the Patriot, Sector Boston command personnel made "several" unsuccessful attempts to pull from the VMS computer system the last radio-beamed location of the steel hulled, 54-foot boat. Eventually, she said, the sector watchstander called for help from the first district command center — which is also in Boston but at a different location.

"Ultimately," Kulisch said, "they were able to put the puzzle together."

The Patriot sank in the early-morning hours of Jan. 3 with the loss of the two-man crew, the husband and father of the boat's co-owner Josephine Russo. The bodies of Matteo Russo, 36, who co-owned the Patriot with his wife, and her father, mate John Orlando, were recovered in the pre-dawn hours by the belated sea-and-air rescue effort on prime fishing grounds and in a busy shipping lane 15 miles southeast of Gloucester Harbor.

Kulisch did not dispute comments by Russo-Orlando family members that she had told them that Coast Guard personnel in Boston had to call to Colorado to obtain the computer code to enter the tracking system.

In the phone interview with the Times, Kulisch declined to speculate on how much time was lost while the watchstander tried and failed to access the VMS system, which is maintained at the National Marine Fisheries Service as an enforcement tool and can pinpoint a vessel's location.

All groundfishing boats — which the Patriot was — are required by federal law to carry and deploy the VMS technology, which acts like a criminal's "electronic bracelet" and is used primarily by NMFS and the Coast Guard to track the whereabouts of boats working in a regulatory framework of limited fishing time and locations.

Indications that something had happened to the Patriot were known to Josie Russo by 1:17 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 3, and she quickly communicated them to Coast Guard Station Gloucester. But a search-and-rescue boat and helicopter were ultimately not dispatched until 3:52 a.m., according to a partial Coast Guard chronology first reported in the Times last Thursday.

Communication, cell phone and text messaging chatter from the boat — typically heavy between the captain and his pregnant wife and her father — had ceased about the time that a fire alarm system on the boat began transmitting. The alarm company contacted Josie Russo and the Gloucester Fire Department, which quickly determined that the Patriot was not in port. But, apparently on orders from Sector Boston, Station Gloucester first responded by sending a car around the harbor to double-check the Fire Department's findings.

Over the next hour in Boston, sector and district personnel attempted to get into the VMS computer system, which contains location tracking and other data on all boats licensed to fish commercially for groundfish.

"(Kulisch) told us they didn't have the password to get into the VMS system, and had to call a station person in Colorado," Josie Russo, her sister Grace Burbridge, and her brother Dominic Orlando told the Times yesterday in their home.

"At the sector level," Kulisch admitted yesterday, "our access ... we were not able to access (VMS) after trying." In structure, the Coast Guard ascends up the ladder from "station," to "sector" to "district." Kulisch said the "case study" of the response to the Patriot's distress "will tell why." She estimated the study would be completed and made public in a matter of weeks.

A related but separate investigation into what caused the loss of the Patriot and the lives of Russo and Orlando is also ongoing. Last Friday, while in Boston to brief the family and meet with the city's political leadership and fishing advocates, Kulisch announced at a news conference that the focus of the probe into what happened in the night hours of Jan 2-3 has turned to a tug hauling a barge using a 2,000-foot-long, 2 1/2-inch-thick cable. Kulisch said the tug, barge and cable were in the vicinity of the Patriot at the time it disappeared.

The Patriot's final "ping" on the VMS system had been at 12:30 a.m., from a point about a mile from the new LNG platform southeast of Gloucester Harbor. It wasn't until two hours later — at sometime after 2:30 a.m. — that the Coast Guard in Boston got that crucial information after the district and sector efforts at cracking the VMS system finally succeeded. That was already more than an hour after the call from Josie Russo, and the Fire Department's confirmation that the Patriot was not in port. It was not until "about 4 o'clock," another hour and a half later, that the search-and-rescue order given, according to Capt. Craig Gilbert, the district's top search rescue officer.

In the interval, the Coast Guard continued surveying for information about the Patriot and where it might have been or gone. Even the former owner of the vessel was called, possibly inadvertently due to an out-of-date database. Gilbert said the Coast Guard interviewed the owner of the fire alarm company to confirm the potential of the signal to be communicated from far sea. He told the Times he wanted to avoid "using assets" unnecessarily, implying that the Coast Guard wanted to avoid a wild good chase.

In interviews and at her Thursday news conference in Boston, Kulisch repeatedly said the Coast Guard was stymied by a combination of problems — not knowing where the vessel was and not having a bona fide distress signal from the boat. She also acknowledged delays occurred because the distress signal came, "with all due respect, from a fisherman's wife."

Russo and her siblings said Kulisch told them that the concern was that the initial report based on the fire alarm was false or a fake.

"They disvalued Matt and my father," said Grace Burbridge. "They said it could have been a fake."

Russo said she asked Kulisch at the briefing last Friday what constituted a "distress call."

"They danced around it, gave us no answer," she said.

In an e-mail to the Times last night, Kulisch said the Coast Guard recognizes specific distress signals. Those include the Global Marine Distress Safety System, which includes EPIRB, VHF Ch. 16 voice and Digital Selective Calling via VHF Ch. 70 and other specific signals.

Kulisch has defended the service's response by citing the extraordinary circumstances — a fire alarm, but no "mayday" call, and no signal from the EPIRB or "emergency position indicating radio beacon," which deploys in the water and when manually operated. She also said that the VMS system is not designed or meant for search and rescue.

That is true — although, in trying to win over skeptical fishermen to accept the required expense of carrying the VMS system two years ago, allusions repeatedly were made that the system would at least be available to the Coast Guard to save lives.

In April 2007, the New England Fishery Management Council's VMS Enforcement Committee met to discuss the status of the project, which included providing access to the Coast Guard for enforcement. Bill Semrau, the VMS program manager for NMFS, wanted to know who had promoted the technology as a safety tool. "The Coast Guard" answered Phil Ruhle, the renowned Rhode Island fisherman, net designer and industry advocate who died last summer when his own fishing boat sunk off New Jersey.

Dr. Arden Bement Jr., director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, explained how it worked in testimony to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration in 2002.

"VMS provides two-way satellite communications capability, which can be used to report suspicious activities or vessels directly to NOAA Fisheries Special Agents, Enforcement Officers and the U.S. Coast Guard," Bement said. VMS also supports the Coast Guard's 'Coastal Watch' initiative, which was developed in response to their homeland defense activities.

"Under 'Coastal Watch,'" Bement continued, "the Coast Guard requests fishers to report suspicious activities for investigation and intelligence purposes. Furthermore, critical decisions on the deployment of enforcement assets can be based on VMS surveillance reports. Satellite communication can also update essential information during a law enforcement response."

Despite the focus on interdiction, VMS can be and has been used effectively in search and rescue operations.

In November, the Coast Guard accessed NMFS's VMS system to help locate a New Bedford fishing boat, the Costa & Corva, which had gone down more than 100 miles east of Cape Cod. Three of the four crew were rescued.

According to Sector Boston public affairs officer Etta Smith, with the help of VMS, the last position of the Costa & Corva was communicated from the Coast Guard to a rescue ship in "less than five minutes."

Richard Gaines can be reached at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.