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June 17, 2009

Coast Guard steps up access to, training for VMS in Patriot's wake

On the January night the Patriot was lost with its crew of two, a riveting symbol of a generally ineffective response was the frustrated efforts of an operations unit controller at Coast Guard Sector Boston to gain access to the vessel monitoring system that could have located the boat.

This VMS is owned and used regularly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in law enforcement of fishery regulations, and fishermen are aware of its capabilities in trained hands.

So the failure of the search-and-rescue personnel in Sector Boston to bring VMS to bear quickly on the mystery of the Patriot, which vanished before the captain, Matteo Russo, could mayday, added to the community's pain.

Facing that failure directly, Coast Guard officials, the admiral for the Atlantic and the search-and-rescue specialist who worked on the case, have pledged henceforth to take full advantage of VMS, a technology that came in as a law enforcement tool, but was always understood as a secondary search-and-rescue resource.

The lessons learned from the Patriot case study will be put to practice, they have pledged.

The last signal came from the Patriot's VMS system at 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 3. But, some time after, as concern began to gather for the safety of the fishing boat and its crew — Russo and his father-in-law John Orlando — the Coast Guard was unable to access the computer system that contained the final coordinates of the doomed boat.

The reports' chronologies don't indicate when the first effort to use VMS was made, but the process took at least 20 minutes, probably longer.

Even after the system was put to use, the decision to launch search and rescue was put off while inexperienced hands tried to penetrate what Vice Adm. R. J. Papp Jr.'s report called the "situational ambiguity" of the problem: What was the status of the Patriot, and where would the search focus?

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