Coast Guard confirms serious problems with channel 16

Harvesters say plan to get system fully operational by 2024 is unacceptable

The USCGC Fir. (Sept. 23, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times
The USCGC Fir. (Sept. 23, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

By the time the U.S. Coast Guard issued an alert in mid-October about VHF-FM radio outages throughout Southeast Alaska, word had already spread through the commercial fishing fleet from harvesters worried that mayday calls might go unanswered.

“I don’t think the fleet is aware of how severe of a problem this is,” said Jeff Farvour, a commercial harvester from Sitka. “Fishermen usually feel the Coast Guard is on to these things. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be fixed any time soon.”

Coast Guard communications officers for Sector Juneau and Sector Anchorage have confirmed this. They acknowledged that the system is antiquated, and there have been more outages of channel 16 this year than in the recent past years in Southeast Alaska and into the Gulf of Alaska.

“If I make a mayday call on channel 16 thinking I am calling the Coast Guard and they can’t hear me, my best luck is if another vessel within range that has good enough reception to hear me relays the message to the Coast Guard if they are within range(of the Coast Guard),” said Farvour, a board member of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association.

“We have a crisis in Coast Guard coverage of channel 16 here in Southeast, with 35 percent of stations down and 40-50 percent of fishing grounds not monitors and no plan to restore before 2024,” said Linda Behnken, executive director of ALFA. “That the Coast Guard says they will get to it by 2024 is not acceptable. Commercial fishermen are all trained to go to channel 16 for maydays. So are hunters out in the water and in the woods. It’s a whole community of people calling 16 and nobody hears them.”

In the wake of an incident in Southeast Alaska, the Coast Guard Sector Juneau issued the news alert that its personnel are experiencing multiple VHF-FM radio outages throughout Southeast Alaska and may not be able to hear or respond to distress calls on channel 16. The Coast Guard identified areas impacted to include the Gulf of Alaska between Yakutat and Sitka, Cross Sound, Peril Strait, Hoonah Sound, southern Chatham Strait, Sumner Strait, waters surrounding Zarembo Island and the west side of Prince of Wales Island. 

While there have been no specific complaints from members of Cordova District Fishermen United, the membership is well aware of the outage issue, said Chelsea Haisman, executive director of CDFU.

All of these sites are remote and getting a maintenance person out there and helicopter availability is challenging, said Chief Dave Bergman, the Anchorage command center communications supervisor.  Both Bergman and his Sector Juneau counterpart, Chief Mike Haselden, said there have been a number of outrages this year and that they are dealing not only with a legacy communications system for which parts may not be readily available.

“We’ve got multiple outages and that’s not typical and we are trying our best to make repairs,” he said.

Meanwhile when channel 16 is down, not only can mariners not receive weather updates or get through with mayday calls, but it makes it difficult for search and rescue crews to reach vessels in distress, they said.

The contract for maintenance and repair of all these sites, the bulk of which are only accessible by helicopter, runs through Dec. 11 with Lynxnet LLC, a subsidiary of NANA Regional Corp. in Kotzebue. Efforts to reach the Coast Guard contracting officer were not immediately successful and John Lincoln, vice president of business development for NANA in Kotzebue, said he was unaware of any issues. Lynxnet, based in Herndon, Va., is a certified 8(a) small disadvantaged business which provides specialized information technology, system modernization and program support services to several federal government agencies, including the Department of Defense. It is a subsidiary of Akima, another of NANA’s 80 subsidiaries, which identifies itself as a global enterprise delivering agile solutions to the federal government, including artificial intelligence.

Employee reviews of the firm posted at the online site indeed.com range from kudos to management officials whom they found to be truly concerned to poor management and too much overtime. One person identified as an Alaska employee of the firm wrote on the site that salaried employees in summer months ended up working 20 to 30 hours a week overtime with no compensation.

“The quality of service to the customer took a dive because we are ‘encouraged’ to simply just get the job done so corners must be cut to keep on schedule,” the anonymous writer wrote, adding that he was looking for another job.

Fishermen are so concerned about the unreliability of this vital communications link that they have asked Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, for assistance, according to Karina Borger, a top aide to the senator, their office is aware of the situation, has heard directly from constituents about the issue and it is high priority to get VHF capabilities restored as quickly as possible.