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Mass Rescue Exercise Tests Response Capabilities in Arctic

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star is hove-to in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, fast ice near the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station, Feb. 2, 2016. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst)
The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star is hove-to in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, fast ice near the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station, Feb. 2, 2016. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst)

Not far from where a 1,000-plus-passenger cruise ship was preparing to set sail for the Northwest Passage, a team of officials in northern Alaska had their sights set on a different vessel.

This vessel, a 250-passenger adventure cruise ship, had caught fire, forcing evacuation in the northern Bering straits.

Of course, this wasn't an actual emergency. But it could have been.

And so officials from multiple countries and various levels of government and the military, including the Coast Guard, spent two days practicing how they would respond if a large-scale emergency were to happen in the Arctic, a region that, given its remoteness and lack of major infrastructure, provides significant challenges for search and rescue operations.

Tin City, home to a radar station, and Kotzebue, a city of about 3,200, both in northwestern Alaska, were ground zero for the two-day mass rescue exercise, which ended Wednesday and was in response to growing economic and tourism interests in the Arctic.

A rapidly warming Arctic climate has melted sea ice, making way for increased maritime traffic and greater human activity in previously inaccessible areas.

"The Arctic region is vast and has significant challenges, and with any rescue, assets could be days away from rendering assistance," Lt. Katharine Braynard, a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard, said.

From June through October, the Coast Guard manages a mobile and seasonal presence in the Arctic, deploying cutters, aircraft and personnel along the north and west coasts of Alaska, according to Braynard.

From November through May, the Coast Guard's presence usually is limited to aircraft patrols as needed, she said.

The Coast Guard cutter Polar Star, a heavy icebreaker based in Seattle, Wash., is the service's only surface asset capable of operating in the Arctic in wintertime.

A May 2011 treaty between the Arctic member nations outlines their responsibilities in the region.

Coast Guard District 17 in Alaska is tasked with protecting the coastline from the tip of the Aleutians to the Canadian border on the North Slope, an area that spans several thousand miles.

Communication capabilities, a vital part of search and rescue efforts, are very limited in that area.

That's where the Coast Guard Research and Development Center in New London comes in.

Researchers used the mass response exercise to test equipment and technology designed to improve communication capabilities in the region.

The equipment and technology being tested could allow first responders, in the event of a mass rescue, to establish voice and internet connections between Coast Guard regional command centers in Juneau and Anchorage.

Testing of that capability on Monday was "really successful," according to Lt. Joseph DiRenzo, with the Coast Guard Research and Development Center.

Rescue efforts were being run out of Juneau and officials there were able to pull resources from the Alaskan command center in Anchorage and communicate with the Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley, which was located in the Kotzebue Sound.

Researchers also were testing a web-based system, already in use by first responders in some parts of the country, that allows first responders to provide updates on search and rescue efforts, including photos and videos, directly to decision makers at the command center and use GPS to track personnel and assets.

That testing was expected to be conducted Wednesday.

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