Saving lives is one of the most rewarding parts of being in the Coast Guard. Deeply embedded in our service reputation, it remains one of the primary reasons people sign-up to be a part of Team Coast Guard. With its official beginnings dating back to the early days of the Life Saving Service, it is commonly thought of as the overarching theme that binds our 11 statutory missions.
Sometimes we are the hand reaching out to a person in the water or the eyes spotting something on the horizon, and other times we are the unwavering voice on the radio providing vital information to those who are scared and alone.
This past January the latter was the case for the Sector San Francisco command center, only instead of a radio transmission, they received an urgent phone call. The California Highway Patrol dispatcher relayed a 911 call from a young woman in the frigid waters of the San Francisco Bay. She was badly injured with no flotation device, only a cell phone that was luckily still able to make a 911 call.
Travis Addison is a civilian SAR controller in one of the busiest command centers in the Coast Guard, and the phone call he received on the night of January 31st would put his knowledge and experience to the test. A test that had a young woman’s life hanging in the balance.
“I knew that I needed to keep her calm to give her the best chance of survival,” said Addison. “We had to conserve her physical and mental strength long enough to allow our rescue crews enough time to reach her or the whole thing could tragically be over at any moment.”
For the next 19 minutes Addison remained on the line with the young woman, assuring her that help was on the way and providing water-survival tips to help preserve her energy and delay hypothermia. Talking on a phone call that could be cutoff at any moment, his voice was the only thing she could hold on to as she frantically waited for help to arrive.
While Addison focused his attention on the survival of the young woman, another Coast Guard civilian was skillfully directing the watch floor. Joseph Ford, a command duty officer, stepped in to launch a rescues crew, issue an Urgent Marine Information Broadcast (UMIB) and gather all of the information he could to save every precious minute.
Addison and Ford’s years of experience and knowledge of available resources paid off when they identified the woman’s exact GPS location using the Rapid SOS telecommunications system. That information would prove to be invaluable when the call was suddenly dropped with a Station Vallejo small-boat crew still minutes away.
The team also used Air and Marine Operations Surveillance System (AMOSS), a DHS program that captures AIS data from aircraft and marine vessels, in order to track Coast Guard and local government air and surface assets in real time. With the ability to talk to the woman in the water now gone, they used AMOSS technology to direct a CHP helicopter to the GPS position they pulled from her cell phone.
The helicopter crew quickly located the young woman and directed the Station Vallejo crew to her position, who were able to safely pull her from the frigid waters and onto the small boat. Still badly injured, she needed immediate medical attention. Addison, Ford, and the command center watch team swiftly coordinated a patient transfer to an awaiting ambulance at a near-by shore. From there, the young woman was taken to a local hospital.
Knowing that time was against them, these two SAR experts made the most of every minute they could get their hands on. They used legacy life-saving skills by calmly talking with the young woman, giving her both the hope and tools to survive in the cold water. They capitalized on new technology that saved the critical time it would have taken to locate a person in the water at night. And they provided leadership to a multi-unit rescue team, enabling them to successfully accomplish the ultimate mission of saving a life.
Throughout the history of our great service, members of the Coast Guard and our legacy services have saved countless lives. None is more important than another, because each life means the world to a family member or friend who would be devastated by the loss. For Travis Addison, Joseph Ford, and the Sector San Francisco command center team, the 19-minute phone call in January meant the world to a young woman fighting for her life and for that, there is no greater reward in the Coast Guard.