Sen. Maria Cantwell talks with the Coast Guard helicopter crew that rescued a mariner whose boat caught fire near Neah Bay a week ago. From left are Avionics Electrical Technician Ryan Hallam

Cantwell says she wants Coast Guard technology beefed up during tour of Port Angeles station

PORT ANGELES — U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell said the Coast Guard should be equipped with the technology it needs to handle the “complexity of Washington’s waterways.”

Cantwell on Friday toured Air Station/Sector Field Office Port Angeles, where she was briefed on a high-frequency radar system that measures surface currents over a large area.

If implemented along the Washington coast and Strait of Juan de Fuca, the technology would enhance search-and-rescue operations and could help track oil spills and harmful algae blooms, proponents said.

“We’re going to ask NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] to prioritize, within the funding that they currently have, areas that should get this technology next,” Cantwell said after the tour.

“And we think this area should be at the top of that list.”

Cantwell said the state waterways are complex because of the volume of cargo container and fishing vessel traffic, coupled with state ferries operating in the Puget Sound.

Much of the cargo that passes through the region is “high-risk product,” she added.

Cantwell, D-Mountlake Terrace, is a member of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee and the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard Subcommittee.

The land-based radar network would produce hourly ocean surface data for the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems, or NANOOS, which provides myriad observational and model data linked to other coastal observational systems nationwide.

Washington state has the largest high-frequency radar gap on the West Coast, with nearly 80 percent of its coastline lacking such coverage.

“We’d love to see HF radar come to the state of Washington in a more substantial way,” said Jan Newton, NANOOS executive director and principal oceanographer for the University of Washington Applied Physics Laboratory, who was on the tour.

Oregon is fully covered by high-frequency radar, said Oregon State University professor Mike Kosro, another tour member.

“It’s been our desire to get these measurements up here,” said Kosro, who runs the radar system in Oregon.

“At that point, we would have continuous measurements along the whole West Coast. Something that went in the water up here, we could track all the way down.”

Capt. Guy Pearce, chief of search-and-rescue for Coast Guard District 13 — which covers Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana — said high-frequency radar would be another tool for the Coast Guard’s Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System, or SAROPS.

That organization feeds data from dozens of sources to onboard computers that help Coast Guard helicopter crews pinpoint the location of vessels adrift or people in the water.

“The bottom line is that the more data that we ingest into the SAROPS system, the more precise the solution we’re going to get,” Pearce said.

“At the end of the day, more is better.”

Although search-and-rescue is the “paramount” application for high-frequency radar, Newton said the technology is critical for “more ecological sorts of analyses” such as oil spills or tracking algal blooms.

“We’re starting to get buoys with smart sensors that can detect the toxins, and then you can look at: ‘OK, it is coming?’” Newton said.

Cantwell helped secure funding for the dual polarization weather radar at Langley Hill in Grays Harbor County, which improved storm forecasting when it opened in 2011.

A self-described “technology advocate,” Cantwell said she would work to close the high-frequency radar gap for ocean observations off the Washington coast.

“What we’re trying to do is get into the Coast Guard bill before the end of the year language that would say, ‘Prioritize those areas of the country that could best use this new data,’” Cantwell said.

“We think the Northwest is one of those areas just because of the complexity of the challenge that the Coast Guard has here,” she added.

“We want those most complex areas of our country to have the best technology.”

Cantwell also met privately with the Coast Guard helicopter crew that rescued the skipper of a 25-foot pleasure craft that caught fire in thick fog and sank about 4 miles north of Neah Bay on Aug. 2.

An MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew located the man in a partially submerged life raft near the burning Dawn Trader, which eventually sank.

The skipper, Paul McIntyre of Lehi, Utah, was treated for hypothermia. [His story follows this one on the home page.]

After the tour of the Coast Guard base, Cantwell was scheduled to meet with Clallam County Democrats and members of the Quileute, Makah and Lower Elwha Klallam tribes at a luncheon in Port Angeles.

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at [email protected]

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