When the Coast Guard gets a call of distress at sea, minutes count. Lives hang in the balance as a ship sinks or when an individual falls overboard and drifts away. And every hour spent hunting for a virtual speck of life in wide open ocean costs tens of thousands of dollars and diverts critical resources from other safety and law enforcement missions.
No one has contributed more to cutting search and rescue times and saving thousands of lives than Arthur Allen, who has spent 35 years as the Coast Guard’s only oceanographer.
During his lengthy career, Allen researched how people and kayaks, motorboats, trawlers and a huge array of other objects drift in vast coastal waters, under a multitude of conditions.
That research is incorporated into a computer modeling program he pioneered called the Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System, or SAROPS, which predicts where objects at sea will be found. The system’s ever-expanding models draw on information from drifting buoys that Allen developed, his interviews with survivors, and the academic and government research he integrated into the system.
“It is always our helicopter and boat crews that get the lifesaving medals, the awards and pictures in the paper,” said Jennifer Conklin, a Honolulu-based search and rescue specialist who has worked with Allen for more than a decade. “But the guy who makes sure those people get there to save the lives is Art. From his cubicle in New London, Connecticut, his work and expertise have been absolutely critical to actually putting our resources in the right place at the right time.”
That not only saves lives and money, she said, but it also frees Coast Guard capacity for other operations that include interdicting drugs and policing illegal fishing.
Allen, an avid hiker and outdoorsman, is considered one of only five experts in the world on “drift characteristics.”
Early in his career, he worked on estimating the probable course and speed of drifting survival craft such as lifeboats, or survivors floating in life vests, producing equations he shared with international maritime organizations. In the late 1990s, he began leading development of the first version of SAROPS, spending more than three years writing algorithms and testing prototypes. SAROPS 1.0 went online in 2007. The current version is credited with saving about a thousand lives a year.
“SAROPS is the center point of my career and is where the rubber meets the road,” Allen said. “Today, my role is the ‘new features guy.’”
Allen, who officially retired in March but returned for a three-year stint as a consultant, also has been a relationship manager. In this role, he has maintained a smooth flow of information between the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Navy, the National Weather Service and universities—all institutions that create data on ocean currents that the drift models depend on.
In his role as an always available advisor to the search and rescue controllers, Allen often helps determine which ocean model from the drift-predicting SAROPS is best suited for a particular circumstance. This might include the use of Self-Locating Datum Marker Buoys—low-cost, GPS-enabled devices he developed with manufacturers to provide accurate, local surface readings.
Before SAROPS, there was no way to integrate and synthesize so many scientific tools and so much data, said Dana Tulis, the Coast Guard director of incident management and preparedness and Allen’s supervisor.
The Coast Guard cannot say precisely how much money Allen’s work and SAROPS have saved, but the cost of search and rescue operations leaves no doubt that it’s substantial, Tulis said. In the past five years, the Coast Guard has responded to more than 17,500 search and rescue incidents. Every hour trimmed from search times, she said, will save an average of $60,100.
Those who have worked with Allen say he is always accessible, even while hiking his favorite terrain in the Adirondack Mountains.
“I seldom talk to him during normal business hours,” said Chris Eddy, a Miami-based Coast Guard search and rescue manager who has worked with Allen for about 15 years. “It’s at 2 in the morning. It’s all night long. When I run out of options in complex cases, Art is my lifeline.”
For example, after searching for a missing diver in the Gulf of Mexico for more than 18 hours recently, Eddy concluded the models were not working. He called Allen, who “asked tons of questions at 100 miles an hour,” and then suggested the diver was probably swimming toward the beach, a factor that threw off the drift analysis. The operators found the lost man almost immediately.
“It was that simple,” Eddy said. “He is truly the kind of person who can never be replaced.”
For his part, Allen said it has been “a privilege” to work for the Coast Guard.
“I’ve had a 35-year sabbatical to pursue and study all aspects of maritime search and rescue,” he said. “The Coast Guard has supported me and provided me with the ultimate freedom to go around the world and pursue this field of study.”
We teamed up with StoryCorps to present #StoriesOfService—a campaign to tell government’s untold stories through the eyes of it’s civil servants. Listen to Arthur A. Allen’s story here: