NOAA’s Search And Rescue System Saves Over 30,000 Lives

By Chris Riotta

Abby Sunderland was 16 years old when she decided she was going to voyage around the entire world alone on a boat.

After running into high winds and rough seas in the Indian Ocean, Sunderland began to panic. She released a distressed signal from her ship that was picked up by a satellite controlled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Soon after, French and Australian rescuers had saved Sunderland's life.

Satellites controlled by NOAA have assisted in over 30,000 life-saving rescues since they first began orbiting the Earth in 1982.

October marks the 30 year anniversary for NOAA's Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking system's first save, which took place on October 10, 1982. SARSAT's first save occurred when three passengers of a small catamaran sailboat were stranded nearly 300 miles off the shore of New England after towering 25-foot waves battered and wrecked the ship.

Today, 43 countries and organizations participate in this international program which includes operating and managing a total of 12 satellites.

When a NOAA satellite pinpoints a distress signal, the information is relayed to the U.S. SARSAT Mission Control Center located at NOAA's Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Md. Information on the signal is then sent to a Rescue Coordination Center, operated by either the U.S. Air Force for land rescues or the U.S. Coast Guard for maritime rescues.

"Every minute counts when a life is in jeopardy," said Cmdr. Mark Turner, with the U.S. Coast Guard's Office of Search and Rescue. "With the teamwork of NOAA and the U.S. search and rescue agencies, the SARSAT [Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking] system does what it was intended to do — save lives."

All emergency beacon owners are required by law to register their devices with NOAA in the United States. With over 350,000 beacons registered by August 2012, NOAA's search and rescue system is transitioning into the future with new generation global positioning satellites launched from the United States, Russia, and the European Union.

Allan Knox, manager of the USAF Search and Rescue/GPS program said, "The U.S. Air Force has relied upon SARSAT to help us locate distressed aviators and outdoorsmen throughout the U.S. and the world. We are extremely excited about this future transition with advanced technology in space and the promising capabilities of the second generation of beacons."

Future technology and equipment for the system is still in the development phase, and is projected to be in limited operations by 2015.

So far this year, 198 saves have been made in the United States with the help of NOAA's search and rescue system. These rescues can be seen on an interactive online map with details of each instance.

"Before SARSAT, there was no system to quickly find people who were in trouble whether they were sailing, went down in a plane crash, or if they were stranded in a remote area on a hiking trip," said Chris O'Connors, NOAA SARSAT program manager. "Time after time NOAA satellites have made the difference between life and death thanks to this international program."