A Sector Commander’s Perspective

>Captain Fred Midgette is the Commander of Sector Detroit in the U.S. Coast Guard’s Ninth District. He was responsible for coordinating the service’s response to the Lake Erie Ice Rescue February 7, 2009. The following is his perspective on the rescue, false rumours of a cutter’s possible involvement in contributing to the incident, and why the Coast Guard doesn’t charge for its rescue service:

“There has been a lot of discussion about the recent rescue of 134 ice fishermen from a breakaway ice floe in Southern Lake Erie. Some of what I have heard or read about is fact, some is opinion and some is just plain misinformation. As the Operational Commander headquartered at Coast Guard Sector Detroit, I coordinated the Coast Guard’s rescue response to this event. These are my observations.

The scale of the response. The Coast Guard prides itself on being a good steward of public funds. We assign resources to rescue cases based on the circumstances of the distress. In this particular case, the initial reports indicated that there were up to 500 persons in need of assistance. Among the first decisions we made in responding was to call up resources from Detroit, St Clair Shores, Toledo, and Marblehead. We also called in a C-130, long range aircraft from Elizabeth City, N.C. 

I don’t think this was an overreaction. Had the weather worsened, visibility decreased, or other floes been discovered with additional stranded persons, we would have required all of these resources – and more. The C-130 provided critical air traffic control capability for both Coast Guard and other agency helicopters. These helicopters were operating in close proximity to each other without an air traffic plan and without interoperable communications (they couldn’t talk to each other across different agencies.) The C-130 also allowed us to quickly survey a large expanse of the ice field to see if there were other persons in distress beyond the main ice floe. 
In the early stages of a potential crisis, when the “fog of war” still clouds many of the facts, it is far more prudent to go in heavy and then back off than it is to find out you’re under resourced when conditions take a turn for the worse. Lives are literally in the balance. 

What caused this? This incident was caused by warm weather and strong winds. Nothing more. There is a pernicious rumor on some blogs and newspaper comment sections that blame this event on a Coast Guard icebreaker. There are even those who say they saw an icebreaker cause the crack. This is simply a myth – it’s not true. All of the Coast Guard icebreakers working in Lake Erie are under my tactical control; I know where they are and what they are doing all of the time. Coast Guard icebreakers that work in Lake Erie provide escort and icebreaking services along well established “tracks” that have been used for decades. The Coast Guard issues press releases and broadcasts a “Notice to Mariners” any time an icebreaker transits a path that is out of the routine, close to shore, or in areas we do not normally operate. In this case, the Coast Guard Cutter MACKINAW departed Cleveland that morning and was diverted to stand by in case they were needed. They stood by to render assistance without ever entering the ice edge Northeast of Kelleys Island.

The concept of Pay for Service. The idea of paying for rescue services has been widely discussed throughout the Coast Guard, with Congress, and with the Office of Management and Budget. After a lot of discussion and analysis, the Coast Guard decided not charge “user fees.”  In 1999, then Commandant, Admiral James Loy articulated the Coast Guard’s reasoning – those reasons are as sound today as they were then:

• User fees will cause people to balance financial decisions against the severity of their situation in the early stages of a rescue case. The outcome would be fewer calls, calls during the later stages of an emergency and more people would die at sea.

• If the Coast Guard required payment for rescues, we would be constantly trying to balance costs and resources – why did we send a helicopter, why not just a small boat? The questions and second guessing would be endless. In addition, it’s nearly impossible to construct an objective test for deciding when someone should have to pay. Was it a real emergency? Should they have known better? Do they have the means to pay?

Partnerships. Even though we are a branch of the armed services and a representative of the federal government, the Coast Guard has always valued and nurtured our relationships with the local communities where we are stationed. This is certainly true in the Great Lakes. Sector Detroit, Station Marblehead and Station Toledo have a long-established, strong, and positive relationship with our state and local partners in Ohio. We work together with law enforcement agencies, emergency rescue personnel and other first responders in a coordinated and cooperative fashion on a daily basis. 

I respect the leadership and the resources that our state and local partners bring to the fight. As a team, we complement each other and provide far better service to the public than any one agency could do by themselves.”

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