Coast Guard quizzed over rescue lapses

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Congress questions why search effort was delayed on one call, while another was deemed a false alarm

Reminded of the loss of the Morning Dew 12 years ago, a congressional panel has asked a Coast Guard admiral whether fumbled rescue responses in two more recent cases mean the agency still is dogged by a shortage of qualified watchstanders.

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Although the Coast Guard “generally performs with great efficiency and exceptional distinction,” it dropped the ball in the Patriot and Buona Madre sinkings, said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the House Transportation Committee’s Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee.

Panel members asked why a Coast Guard command center would spend 2 hours and 23 minutes in “fact-

finding and analysis of information” before launching boats and aircraft to respond to a Jan. 3 electronic fire alarm sent by the commercial fishing vessel Patriot to a private monitoring service, Cummings said at a Sept. 30 subcommittee hearing.

The monitoring service had immediately contacted the Patriot skipper’s wife, who notified the Coast Guard. She told the watchstander that Patriot was fishing off Gloucester, Mass., but because the agency had heard no mayday and received no EPIRB signal, it began checking piers in Gloucester first.

In actuality, the 54-footer had gone down 14 miles off Gloucester with its captain and mate aboard, both of whom died in the icy water. Cummings wanted to know why the sector and command duty officers weren’t awakened to help inexperienced watchstanders move ahead.

In the July 2007 sinking of the Buona Madre — a 28-foot wooden fishing boat — the Coast Guard called back rescuers responding to a report from the 291-foot cargo ship Eva Danielsen that it might have run down a fishing boat. According to the report, a deck hand had seen the fishing boat “close under the bow” in heavy fog off San Francisco.

The Coast Guard terminated the mission after the skipper of the cargo ship radioed that he had circled back and found no evidence of a collision, and Vessel Traffic Service controllers had located the only two fishing boats known to have been near Eva Danielson at the time of the suspected collision. The ship’s skipper and VTS both concluded it was a false alarm, and the Coast Guard concurred without doing its own independent investigation. Buona Madre’s single crewman was found dead in the water the next day.

The Coast Guard consistentely draws praise for its ability to rescue mariners in all kinds of conditions, but two recent incidents have been closely scrutinized.

Both were unusual cases. Both presented watchstanders with confusing information. Both demanded time-tested watchstanders capable of applying judgment and analytical thinking to the situation, said Cummings.

An action memorandum issued by the Coast Guard after it investigated Buona Madre’s loss acknowledged that its personnel failed to “appropriately respond without delay.” Coast Guard procedures require a response even when a report is suspected to be a false alert or hoax.

And regarding the Patriot, “In plain language, the final action memorandum [summarizing the investigation] states that the ‘actions and judgment exhibited by both the First District and Sector Boston Command Center watchstanders call into question the qualification and staffing procedures at both the sector and district levels for the command centers,’ ” according to Cummings.

“That’s a very troubling statement,” he said, one that “eerily recalls” the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the deaths of a father, his two sons and their cousin aboard Morning Dew, a 34-foot sailboat that crashed into the rock jetty outside Charleston (S.C.) Harbor in December 1997. In that case, the NTSB questioned the “adequacy of the reasoning and decision-making of Coast Guard Group Charleston’s watchstanders” and the “adequacy of Coast Guard Group Charleston’s personnel, equipment, and procedures for responding to an emergency.”

A Coast Guard radio watchstander at the station eight miles from the jetty had heard a faint “mayday, mayday, U.S. Coast Guard” over the VHF radio about 2 a.m. He later said he wasn’t sure what he heard and couldn’t raise the caller to get more information. He neither recorded the call in his log nor passed the information on to his duty officer.

Just before dawn, the lookout on a ship entering the harbor heard faint cries for help from the water. The ship’s pilot boat searched for 20 minutes and reported to the Coast Guard that it couldn’t find the source of the cries. The officer of the day concluded there was nothing there and decided not to send a helicopter, airplane or rescue boat to search further. Passersby found the boys’ bodies washed up later that morning.

Noting that the experience of the duty officer and the watchstanders was very thin at Sector Boston the night Patriot sank, Cummings asked Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara, “How often do you wind up with so many inexperienced people in a sector command center?”

The deputy commandant for Coast Guard operations said that at every level personnel are encouraged to go up the chain of command to more experienced hands, awakening them if necessary, to seek help assessing a situation. She said stressing that point to personnel is a leadership issue, but she argued that the Coast Guard also is taking steps to add depth and experience to its watchstanding.

The agency has assigned permanent civilian staff to its command centers to provide continuity and experience as Coast Guard personnel rotate in and out, she said. It added 218 new positions in 2009 to beef up command centers — although it could take a couple years to fill the jobs — and is trimming watchstander duty shifts from 24 to 12 hours to improve readiness. She said the agency also is gearing up more courses to train watchstanders and sending out standardization teams to evaluate command center operations — all to sharpen responses.

Brice-O’Hara agreed that in the cases brought before the subcommittee the Coast Guard fell short in hewing to one of its fundamental principles: its “bias for action” and “swift and effective” response, a principle she said it has been pretty successful in drilling into its people. Cummings agreed, pointing out that the Coast Guard rescued more than 30,000 people after Hurricane Katrina and saved its millionth life in 2007.

Cummings said the occasional failures aren’t a result of poor policies. They occur, he said, because individuals have trouble handling “complex, ambiguous” situations.

Those situations require a steady, well-trained, experienced hand, he said.

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This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.