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R.I. rescue firm is poster child for Apple

Tech giant’s promotional video shows how iPad and iPhone have transformed Safe/Sea operations

Apple has produced a video podcast showing how Safe/Sea Marine Rescue, a marine assistance company based in Wickford, R.I., uses the mobile technology of the iPad and iPhone to operate its business.

“Information is extremely important for us,” Safe/Sea vice president Capt. Peter Andrews says. “My captains have jobs come at them at all hours of the day or night. They need to know what they’re going for, where they’re going, what they need to be thinking about on their way there and what problem they’re going to have to solve. The more information they can collect and have access to before they get to an incident, the more capable they are at dealing with the incident.”

Apple visited the Rhode Island company last June, photographing and interviewing its captains. Apple produced a free three-minute video downloadable from iTunes under podcast episodes and posted full-page profiles of Safe/Sea on Apple’s “iPad in Business” and “iPhone in Business” websites. Apple also has posted videos featuring other companies, such as General Electric, Hyatt Hotels & Resorts and the Benetton Group.

“[Apple is] a monster company that’s known the world over,” says Safe/Sea senior staff captain and marketing director Phil LeBlanc. “There are only four or five full-time guys in this company, so for a small, family-owned company in the smallest state in the country to get recognized by Apple was a pretty big deal.”

Apple’s iOS mobile devices help LeBlanc carry out his duties and respond to recreational boaters. “From a captain’s standpoint, it gives me backups for every device I have on board,” says LeBlanc, a full-time captain at Safe/Sea. “I have [the Automatic Identification System] to keep track of incoming ships. I have backup charts. I have instant weather from a number of sources. It takes all the information we used to have to call the office for and puts it on that one portable screen for me.”

The most useful business productivity app for LeBlanc — Filemaker Go — “lets me access my database and see everything that is going on from my iPad,” he says. “I can look up a customer, find out every job we have ever done for him, every boat he has ever had, every payment he has ever made. It’s all right there.”

While under way, LeBlanc likes to use some of the charting software available through the iPad. “It’s just phenomenal and just as accurate, if not more so, than my chart plotter on board,” he says. “And the display quality is better.”

The company uses a 3G broadband network to access the Internet with its iPads and iPhones.

Apple lovers

So how did the Apple video come to fruition? Safe/Sea has used Apple products for 20 years. Its captains consistently buy devices from their local Apple store. In early 2010, Safe/Sea’s Apple business representative, knowing that the company used Apple mobile devices in its operations, asked Safe/Sea whether it would be interested in providing a small video profile for a regional conference of Apple employees.

John Andrews, Safe/Sea’s founder and president, agreed, and the company came up with some on-board footage. Its video went on to play both at the Apple conference and at the Providence (R.I.) Boat Show. “And then it sort of took on a life of its own,” Peter Andrews says. “Someone from Apple in Cupertino saw the video, one thing led to another, and here we are.”

A general assistance partner with TowBoatUS, Safe/Sea was founded 25 years ago. Captains use rigid hull inflatables — two 33- and two 35-footers and a 28-footer — to carry out their jobs. The company employs six full-time workers, and five of them are captains. John Andrews, who is Peter’s father, is president. LeBlanc’s brother, Nick, is the senior dispatcher and office and IT manager.

Fleet manager Capt. Andy Casey manages the fleet maintenance program and integrates the information into databases. “He is entirely responsible for keeping our fleet fully operational and looking as good as it does, managing well over $1 million in rescue boats, vehicles and shoreside support facilities,” Peter Andrews says.

Safe/Sea salvages and tows boats and assists recreational boaters in all Rhode Island waters, including Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island Sound and Block Island Sound, up to 25 nautical miles south of Block Island. That’s no small task.

“Before mobile technology, someone had to stay close to a landline phone or a hard-wired VHF radio all the time to listen for calls for help from boaters,” says Peter Andrews. “We used to spend a lot more money on dispatchers who sat at a desktop computer and input information and looked up our customers’ information for our captains.”

Those days are over. “We can be more mobile and more responsive and better prepared when we get to an incident with all this mobile technology,” Peter Andrews says. “For instance, we couldn’t get the NOAA weather report until we got to the boat and hit the WX button on the VHF radio. Now you just hit the app on the iPhone or iPad and you have the latest NOAA forecast. We can get live wind and weather conditions immediately from anywhere.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue.


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