wave.jpgU.S. Coast Guard Sector San Francisco unveiled a new high-tech operations center today that officials said would facilitate multiple agencies during a disaster and help take the “search” out of everyday search and rescue operations.

The $18.1 million two-story Interagency Operations Center, or IOC, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, opened today to much fanfare at a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring keynote speaker House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco.

The Coast Guard protects Americans from the sea and threats delivered by the sea, as well as the sea itself, she said.

“The IOC will allow us to do so with the most cutting-edge, innovative technology, and interoperability between all of our first responders,” she said. “That is a remarkable, remarkable achievement.”

She said that just after the Sept. 11 attacks, interoperability among local, state and federal agencies seemed “almost impossible.”

“Now you have it here,” she said.

The new center has space for members of the Coast Guard, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and California Emergency Management Agency to work side by side in case of an emergency.

Members of local jurisdictions such as the San Francisco, Alameda and Oakland police and fire departments can coordinate at the interagency center, which will be especially valuable during the upcoming America’s Cup sailing race, Pelosi said.

Also housed at the new command center will be Rescue 21, a state-of-the-art emergency location system that Sector San Francisco has been phasing into its operations, Coast Guard Capt. Jay Jewess said.

The program helps Coast Guard rescuers quickly locate distressed vessels by reducing search areas by up to 95 percent, he said.

Mariners send out a call for help over VHF Channel 16, which goes out to seven radio towers along the coast and inland waterways. Four towers are set to come on line soon.

The new high-tech receivers can detect the direction from which the call is coming, allowing rescuers to track direct lines of bearing to the distressed vessel and home in on a smaller search area, Jewess said.

Before, the towers would receive the signal but did not know where it originated.

Rescuers only knew which towers had and had not received the signal, and they would use that information to triangulate a much larger search area.

Sector San Francisco began implementing Rescue 21 about six months ago, according to Coast Guard Capt. Cynthia Stowe. The technology proves valuable on a daily basis, the members of Sector San Francisco said.

“We are the busiest search-and-rescue center in the country,” with 1,200 rescues per year, Jewess said.

The new interagency center has also allowed Sector San Francisco to move its Vehicle Traffic Service wing, which used to be up the hill from the main facility, to a room next-door to its second-story command center.

Vehicle Traffic Service basically acts as traffic control for all of the vessels entering the local ports, service training director Scott Humphrey said.

Each vessel checks in over radio with the controllers, who watch port activity on computer monitors using radar and electronic sensor screens as well as closed-circuit TV cameras.

The controllers learn the vessel patterns and watch for anomalies or safety risks, Humphrey said. If there’s a problem, the traffic service controller contacts the now-adjacent command center, which has the assets and authority to respond.

With the new interagency center, “We’re closing the gaps,” Humphrey said said.

Janna Brancolini, Bay City News

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