No call unanswered

From the outside, it looks like just another municipal building you’d see in any one of thousands of towns across the country. Little suggests this simple structure — home to some fairly sophisticated equipment and talented people, and quite literally buzzing with constant activity — is a key element of the Coast Guard’s search-and-rescue infrastructure. For offshore voyagers, the people in this building could turn out to be lifesavers.

This unpretentious building houses the Coast Guard’s Communications Area Master Station Atlantic (Camslant), known better to most of us simply as November-Mike-November. As a coastal radio station, NMN has a long and proud history of service to the maritime community, dating all the way back to 1926. That tradition lives on, and Camslant operates today with the motto “No Call Unanswered.”

The facility is located on a U.S. naval base in the countryside near Chesapeake, Va. This location actually serves only as the receive site for station NMN, whose transmitters are located several miles away near Virginia Beach. Many printed references still generically refer to NMN as Portsmouth, Va.

Chief Warrant Officer Terry Kammerer, the communications officer at Camslant, graciously acted as host and tour guide during a recent visit. The Chief and I introduced ourselves and exchanged pleasantries in the lobby, while his crew “swept the deck” in the Camslant operations room. In this context, sweeping the deck meant concealing any secure or confidential documents and blanking certain computer screens before my zero-security-clearance eyes could be permitted to so much as enter the room. One can well understand the precautions, given the Coast Guard’s critical role in areas like drug interdiction and now homeland security.

Once the all-clear was sounded, we went inside. While signing in on the guest log, one’s eyes are drawn to several sharp-looking liquid-plasma flat-screen displays suspended from the ceiling and on walls about the room — all tuned to CNN Headline News. Now, a budget-conscious agency like the Coast Guard doesn’t invest in this much technology just to watch TV! Clearly the telecast was due to the presence of a visitor in the room, and the displays are likely put to much more practical uses when only legitimate staff are present on deck. “On deck,” incidentally, is apparently the appropriate Coast Guard jargon for being physically present in the operations room at Camslant.

The Coast Guard implemented what it calls the master-station concept during the 1990s, basically as an efficiency move. Under this plan, the four high-seas stations on the eastern seaboard (NMF/Boston, NMN/Chesapeake, NMA/Miami and NMG/New Orleans) are all staffed and controlled remotely from just one location at NMN/Chesapeake. There’s a lot of radio equipment at the other locations, but no people. Camslant also remotely keys NMM/Savannah for Navtex broadcasts on 518 kHz. Other stations in Isabella, Puerto Rico, and the Florida Keys are not remotely operated by Camslant, but still lie within its area of jurisdiction.

Remotely operated

What does all that mean? Well, for example, when you call the Coast Guard via NMA/Miami, you’re actually speaking with an operator sitting at NMN in Chesapeake. Ditto for those weatherfax broadcasts you receive from NMF/Boston and NMG/New Orleans. While the broadcasts are coming from those transmitter locations, the people and equipment supplying them are all located back at Camslant in Virginia, operating the transmitters by remote control. For those of you on the West Coast, operations in the Pacific are likewise consolidated with the Camspac/NMC facility in Pt. Reyes, Calif., remotely keying NMO in Hawaii.

It also means that Camslant is a very busy place. Geographically, their area of responsibility (the Lantarea, in Coastie parlance) extends from Maine to the Florida Keys and out to sea to include all of Navareas 4 and 12. The center monitors distress communications from the maritime public within this area and disseminates a slew of marine safety information (MSI) and weather products on a daily basis. As if that’s not enough, Camslant is further charged with managing all of the Coast Guard’s own operational communications requirements on the high seas and in the air, via both HF-SSB radio and satellite.

Camslant is responsible for staffing five radio stations, when one includes the Navtex broadcasts from Savannah. Collectively among the five stations, Camslant center performs the following tasks:

  • Broadcasts weatherfax charts from NMF/Boston and NMG/New Orleans on an around-the-clock schedule.

  • Issues Navtex MSI bulletins from NMF/Boston, NMN/Chesapeake, NME/Savannah, NMA/Miami and NMG/New Orleans at prescribed intervals.

  • Transmits Sitor (simplex teletype over radio — radiotelex) text weather forecasts from NMF/Boston twice daily, with additional ice information broadcasts during appropriate seasons.

  • Broadcasts high-seas weather forecasts using a recorded voice from NMN/Chesapeake and NMG/New Orleans. To maintain operator proficiency, the weather forecast is broadcast live at least once per watch, instead of via a recording.

    That adds up to a combined total of 67 scheduled broadcasts per day. Bear in mind that the broadcast schedule is in addition to vigilantly maintaining a listening watch for routine traffic and distress calls on up to five different frequencies at four different sites; monitoring for digital selective calling (DSC) distress calls on five frequencies at four sites; carrying Sitor traffic in support of Amvers (automated merchant vessel reporting — ship position reports) and Obs (ship weather observations, for NOAA); not to mention the Coast Guard’s own internal traffic and assorted satellite communications. There are phone lines, too, including an 800 number for the public.

    Granted, many of the above tasks are highly automated. In fact, there are more computer terminals in the room than there are people. Camslant operates with an average watch staff of 14 personnel manning the various consoles. This is remarkable, given the number of tasks at hand at any given moment. Even automated broadcasts require a certain degree of manual intervention and must be monitored by human ears to ensure everything is unfolding as it should. Everyone is busy.

    Some pointed considerations and operating tips emerged from this visit. Some of these are obvious, others perhaps not so apparent.

    First, even with the advent of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System and DSC hailing, the Coast Guard will continue to listen for voice distress traffic, as they do now, on ITU (International Telecommunication Union) channels 424, 601, 816 and 1205. Channel 1625 is available on request. The Coast Guard refers to this watch-keeping as CALLS (Contact and Long-range Liaison System — see for details). Internally it is referred to as the systems coordination net, or SCN.

    Time required

    Should it become necessary to hail the Coast Guard, it’s essential to give them time to answer. The reasons for this stem from the centralized nature of the Camslant operation. Bear in mind that the operator may already be in conversation with some other vessel, perhaps using a different channel or transmitter site that you’re not hearing. Still, given that the CALLS channels are duplex, they will likely hear your request, as well. But then the Camslant operator must further determine which station location he or she is receiving you from and on which frequency. With these items determined, Camslant can then switch to that frequency, tune their antenna to operate there, and answer your call. Understandably, the process can take a moment or so.

    Rather than hailing a specific station, such as “Coast Guard Boston” or “November-Mike-Foxtrot,” a better practice would be to call the more generic “Camslant.” This accomplishes a couple of things. First, it removes any doubt from the Camslant operator’s perspective as to whether you are calling them specifically or perhaps trying to raise a more local Coast Guard Group station. If they hear Camslant, they know exactly who you mean. Second, this places the selection of a transmitter location clearly in the hands of the Camslant operator, based on where he or she is receiving your signal most clearly. Given the skywave nature of HF propagation, it is not unthinkable that a vessel 300 miles off the coast of New Jersey calling on channel 1205 in mid-afternoon might be heard perfectly clear at NMA/Miami yet remain almost inaudible at NMN/Chesapeake. In any case, if Camslant hears you calling on one of their frequencies and they don’t hear someone answer you, they will ultimately pick up the call.

    For those fitting newer SSB equipment with GMDSS features, such as DSC for hailing, a few additional points are worth mentioning. DSC-capable HF radio equipment geared toward recreational mariners has only recently become available here in the United States. Those who choose to fit this equipment aboard should have a solid understanding of how to use it properly, not only to place a distress call but also how to respond when a distress alert from another vessel is received.

    First, the Coast Guard does still intend to declare a Sea Area A2 operational. The target date for this was Oct. 1, 2002, and the equipment is now in place at designated Coast Guard Group stations along the coast. However, further testing is going on to determine radio coverage areas more precisely. At present, the United States has declared only Sea Area A3.

    While they don’t actively encourage the practice, as time allows, Camslant will acknowledge a DSC test message if it includes a DSC acknowledgement request. As with voice calling, allow Camslant time to respond, especially to routine test messages. The stated goal is to acknowledge all DSC distress calls within two minutes of receipt. One typical scenario: An operator new to DSC hailing transmits a test message to NMN/Chesapeake and doesn’t receive (or deserve) an instantaneous response. Before Camslant has an opportunity to acknowledge, that same operator is transmitting another request addressed to a different station, say NMF/Boston, seeking instant gratification there. Now Camslant has to determine which message to acknowledge to get this operator to stop transmitting ad-hoc test requests. Everyone should recognize that test messages are low priority and keep testing to an absolute minimum.

    Determining vessel info

    It may come as a surprise to learn that Camslant does not have the ability to instantly look up or cross-reference a Mobile Maritime Service Identity to determine a vessel name or other particulars. For this reason, if you use DSC to address a request to Camslant, asking them to come up on a voice frequency, they will proceed to hail your vessel using the MMSI number only. If the person operating the equipment on your end does not recognize the ID, he or she may fail to realize that Camslant is in fact calling in response to your request. So, in addition to obtaining a valid identity and programming it into the DSC-enabled equipment onboard, it is a good idea to post the vessel’s MMSI number at the nav station or on the radio equipment itself. The bottom line: “Know thy MMSI.”

    Finally, there is the whole issue of what to expect when one summons the Coast Guard for assistance. As the point of contact for vessels on the high seas, Camslant can summarily muster some impressive resources to come to the aid of a vessel in distress. The Coast Guard operator will go to extreme lengths to determine the exact nature of the emergency and confirm that assistance is in fact being requested. Help may be dispatched in the form of rescue aircraft and the diversion of other vessels to a distressed vessel’s location, which can put additional lives at risk. The decision must be made judiciously.

    In any case, all of us who go to sea can take comfort in the fact that the impressive facilities and dedicated professionals at Camslant are on deck and ready.

    Tim Hasson is a freelance writer based in Salford, Pa.

  • By Ocean Navigator