Coast Guard establishes presence in Barrow

Coast Guard communication crews load a mobile communication center in support of Forward Operating Location Barrow, Alaska, onto a Coast Guard C-130 at Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, July 2, 2012. Two helicopters with supporting air, ground and communications crews were moved 900-miles north from Kodiak to Barrow to support the summer operational phase of the Coast Guard's Arctic Shield 2012. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Charlie Vice.

There is a new addition to the horizon of the Arctic shoreline this summer.

Coast Guard Forward Operating Location Barrow, Alaska became officially operational Monday. FOL Barrow is part of the Coast Guard’s ongoing involvement on the Northern Slope, Arctic Shield 2012, which focuses on outreach, operations and an assessment of the Coast Guard’s capabilities above the Arctic Circle.

Arctic Shield kicked off in February with outreach efforts to 27 tribal communities in Northern Alaska. Outreach efforts included meetings, medical, dental and veterinary assistance as well as water safety, ice safety, boating safety and commercial fishing vessel safety training at local schools and with search and rescue organizations.

July begins the operational portion of the campaign.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Gutierrez, an operations specialist with the Communications Area Master Station Pacific, adjusts a satellite antennae attached to the Transportable Communications Center deployed in Barrow, Alaska, July 18, 2012. Gutierrez and his fellow crew members have been deployed to Barrow in support of Coast Guard Arctic Shield 2012 operations, community outreach and capability assessment initiatives. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Elizabeth H. Bordelon.

Logistics for operations in the Arctic theater are complex. The FOL in Barrow consists of two Kodiak-based MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters with supporting air, ground and communications crews. While infrastructure for air and ground crews was already in place, the communication crews faced the unique challange of establishing a secure and reliable line of communications in such a remote and harsh environment.

Semper paratus, the Coast Guard had a plan for that.

For long-range communications, planning officials called on Coast Guard Communications Area Master Station Pacific, located in Point Reyes, Calif., to provide communication support for the anticipated increase of maritime activity in the Arctic.

CAMSPAC delivers record message traffic and voice communications services to more than 13,000 Coast Guard men and women at 358 units from Alaska to the Middle East to the South Pacific. CAMSPAC crews also provide extensive weather warnings and safety information to thousands of commercial and recreational vessels, and act as a distress notification center when mariners encounter difficulty. CAMSPAC was able to successfully coordinate the deployment of one of their detachments to ensure fluid communications and connectivity in support of the operational phase.

Arriving in Barrow in early July, the seven-person crew spent five days setting up a remote communication post near Barrow Point. A mere 1,250 miles from the North Pole, they had their work cut out for them. Minimal infrastructure in the region required the transfer of a transportable communications center to the area to support the needs of the seasonal operation.

“It was incredibly difficult to get our TCC up here,” said Petty Officer 1st Class David Warfel, an operations specialist at the CAMSPAC Mobile Contingency Communication Detachment in Novato, Calif. “We drove the trailer from Novato to Sacramento and then loaded it onto a C-130 bound for Kodiak. We only had a quarter-of-an-inch of space on each side once inside the aircraft, so it took quite a bit of maneuvering. The trailer was then transferred to a second aircraft for it’s final transit to Barrow.”

Once operational, the TCC was staffed by Coast Guard operations specialists from CAMSPAC, Communication Station Kodiak, the 17th Coast Guard District, Training Center Petaluma and Air Station Kodiak.

Through the coordination of these individuals from multiple units in this lonely tent at the northern most point of the United States, a vital link to critical resources is available to mariners in distress. Communication capability is crucial in time-sensitive situations like search and rescue missions.

“All of our communications—the HF, VHF, satellite communications, etc—are run out of this trailer,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Gutierrez. “We have the ability to relay long-range calls back to the local police department and medical personnel when search and rescue is necessary.”

Communication operations for Arctic Shield are completely dynamic. Arctic weather can change suddenly and the crews must remain flexible in order to adapt. Flight times change, search and rescue cases pop up…these guys are not a 9 to 5 unit.

Coast Guard communication crews work to establish a mobile communication center in support of Forward Operating Location Barrow, Alaska, July 2, 2012. Two helicopters with supporting air, ground and communications crews were moved 900-miles north from Kodiak to Barrow to support the summer operational phase of the Coast Guard's Arctic Shield 2012. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Charlie Vice.

“Right now, we are only up and operating when our aircrafts are airborne,” said Warfel. “We are working primarily as air guard support for the helicopters. However, we are also monitoring the maritime frequencies, like Channel 16, which will be used by our cutters once they arrive.”

An estimated arrival date of surface assets is difficult to pin down. Arctic ice is tricky to predict and only a small window exists in which the vessels can safely transit to the Arctic region.

“The ice changes every day,” said Warfel. “When we first arrived, there was no ice close to the shore. Now it’s everywhere. You can swim right out and touch it.”

And swim out they did.

Several of the CAMSPAC crewmembers are now official members of the local chapter of the Barrow Polar Bear Club. Initiation requires a dip in the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean and the crew was happy to comply.

“A bunch of the local children came out to the beach to watch us take the plunge,” said Warfel. “We were also invited to participate in the 4th of July festivities. We had a float in the city’s parade. Everyone here has been really nice and very welcoming.”

Although radio and satellite communication may have been the job the CAMSPAC crew was deployed to Barrow to accomplish, the overarching goal of Arctic Shield is to initiate a much more important type of discussion—one between the local community and Coast Guard personnel.

Interactions between ground crews and residents are building a relationship based on trust and understanding. The Coast Guard still has a lot to learn when it comes to the Arctic and our partnerships with local and tribal communities are critical to our success. Thanks to our FOL Barrow crew, the lines of communication are open. All we have to do is listen.

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