The Kodiak region has been experiencing lower VHF reception due to problems in the Coast Guard’s Raspberry Island and Cape Gull VHF-FM remote fixed facilities, according to the most recent Notice to Mariners. Without reliable VHF signal, mariners in distress are sometimes unable to get in touch with the Coast Guard through the CHF-FM Channel 16.
The outages in the Kodiak area may impact Northwest Afognak Island, Cape Douglas, Shelikof Strait, Western Kodiak Island, and Kupreanof Strait.
According to Coast Guard Public Affairs Officer Lt. Commander Scott McCann, the outages are routine and are typically fixed within a few weeks
“There isn’t anything different about what’s been going on now than what’s been going on in the life of the towers,” he said. The towers are located in remote mountaintops, and fixing technical malfunctions often requires flying to the towers, which can only be done in appropriate weather conditions, usually with the help of a helicopter.
While the towers serve the Coast Guard, their maintenance is contracted to Lynxnet, a private company owned by NANA Regional Corp., an Alaska Native corporation.
“They have to diagnose the problem, and find an opening in our notoriously bad weather to fly up and fix them,” McCann said.
The Coast Guard operates 34 towers throughout Alaska. As of Friday, seven of them were down. McCann said that’s a typical number.
The Kodiak region is served by seven towers: Middle Cape, Sitkinak Dome, Pillar Mountain, Marmot Island, Raspberry Island, and Cape Gull. The Raspberry Island and Cape Gull towers began experiencing technical difficulties on Oct. 12.
While McCann says these problems are routine, the high number of outages in recent months has left some mariners concerned about Coast Guard communications infrastructure.
The topic of Coast Guard communications outages was discussed at a recent Kodiak Fisheries Workgroup meeting on Friday. In an update from the office of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, legislative assistant Ann Robertson said Murkowski is concerned about the situation.
“We're really not happy with the current situation,” she said. “We have sent a letter to the commandant about this. Our hope is that we can get this resolved soon. It's unclear what the resolution timeline is, because they are facing challenging weather conditions to repair them, but in the meantime we want to make sure everyone has the information they need to stay safe out on the water.”
The Coast Guard recommends that mariners carry alternate means of communication in case the VHF signal is unreliable. These include high frequency radios, satellite phones, EPIRBs, and spot devices such as Garmin InReach. McCann also said mariners should always notify others of where they are going and the planned duration of their trip and should carry all required safety gear and know how to use it in case of emergency.
Fisheries Work Group member Julie Kavanaugh said she has had personal experience with Coast Guard communications outages while fishing. According to her, the alternate means of communications are an inadequate solution to properly functioning VHF signal.
“We had a personal situation that happened to us and their communications weren't working over the radio and they wanted to use an InReach, which we didn't have,” she said. “Anyone that uses an InReach knows that sometimes it works instantly and sometimes you don't get a message for 15 minutes.”