On August 4, 2005, the Coast Guard will celebrate 215 years of maritime service to the nation. It has been my custom each year at this time to give recognition to the Coast Guard’s contributions to that effort. This year I address the Coast Guard auxiliary and their key role in supporting Coast Guard missions and filling operational gaps where needed.
The Coast Guard Auxiliary, America’s Volunteer Life Savers, indeed, play an important role in Coast Guard operations. And if I were king, I would change its primary name from auxiliary to Volunteer Life Savers or Citizen Patriots. Auxiliary just doesn’t cut it, there is nothing secondary about their contributions to the Coast Guard, as the word “auxiliary” suggests. They are to the Coast Guard as “the bench” is to professional sports. Try playing without them.
The Volunteer Life Savers’ contributions to the Coast Guard on Lake Michigan are well-documented, and perhaps their most profound contribution is stitching together the gaps in the Coast Guard’s far-reaching Lake Michigan search and rescue network. Coast Guard volunteers provide 24-7 coverage in remote areas such as Escanaba, Michigan, located in Little Bay de Noc, tucked away above Green Bay. Bay de Noc is a three-hour boat trip from the nearest Coast Guard search and rescue facility at Sturgeon Bay.
In lower Green Bay, Volunteer Life Savers staff and operate a Coast Guard 28-foot rescue boat, performing most Coast Guard missions except law enforcement. Volunteer Life Savers do, however, indirectly support law enforcement missions by standing radio watches and filling search and rescue billets. For example, at Station Wilmette, Chicago Volunteer Life Savers man a 24-foot search and rescue boat. This frees up boat crews so they can focus on law enforcement missions. Due in part to the support they received from their Volunteer Life Savers, Station Wilmette’s Midnight Badger law enforcement teams bagged 71 drunk boaters during 2004, more drunk citations than any other Coast Guard station nationwide.
Across the lake in Michigan City, Volunteer Life Saver Ed Ross, age 64, qualified as crewman on the station’s 47-foot motor lifeboat (MLB). He met all the boat qualification requirements including passing a physical fitness test required of Coast Guard crewman one-third his age. Ross now fills a crewman billet aboard the MLB, which frees up a qualified law enforcement officer. Chief Paul Decker, Officer in Charge Michigan City said, “We have limited personnel to fill operational billets. When Ed filled the MLB billet it provided that extra body we needed to form a special law enforcement unit that focused strictly on law enforcement and specifically on removing drunk boaters off the water.” It sure paid off. During 2004, Station Michigan City crews nabbed 23 drunk boaters.
In Traverse City, Michigan, twin flotillas cover East and West Traverse Bays, and provide gap coverage between Coast Guard Stations Frankfort and Charlevoix, Michigan. Further to the south the Coast Guard Auxiliary in South Haven alone has conducted over 1,500 search and rescue cases while assisting over 4,000 boaters while saving more than 25 million dollars in property over a 15 year period.
Volunteer Life Savers perform another gap support role that definitely supports Coast Guard operational training. They supply their own boats so boat and air station personnel can achieve training objectives. It’s normal during spring to see Coast Guard boat crews actively involved in training on Lake Michigan. If you look closely, you most likely will also see a Coast Guard auxiliary boat nearby. And the Volunteer Life Savors have proven to be invaluable in filling operational gaps by supplying crews and boats for safety security zones for major marine events like fireworks and major powerboat races. Look around next time you attend one of these events, you most likely will see a Volunteer Life Saver volunteering his or her time or boat to assure you’re safe on the water.
Another key role they perform in keeping people safe on the water is with vessel safety checks on recreational boats. At Manistee, Volunteer Life Savers annually conduct nearly 300 vessel safety checks a year. During 2004, they scored amongst the top five nationwide in vessels safety checks. The value these folks bring to the Coast Guard does carry a cost equivalent. According to a 2003 Coast Guard study the total value of volunteer hours provided the Coast Guard my the Volunteer Life Savers that year amounted to 81 million dollars.
But of even greater value and life saving at that are the boating safety courses Volunteer Life Savers provide countless boaters. Volunteer Life Savers who teach boating safety courses tell me that boaters are aghast at how naive they had been regarding boating safety and their own well being upon the water. Every boater, they proclaim, should take a boating course. I highly recommend boaters take this advice and sign up for a Coast Guard Auxiliary boating safety course or vessel safety check.
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