Breaking the Ice; Success Through Teamwork and Partnerships

>We are just a couple of days away from calling “game over” for the 2008/2009 Great Lakes Icebreaking Season.

As a newcomer to the Great Lakes, I can honestly say I was taken aback by the magnitude of the teamwork, coordination, and sheer effort over the past few months to keep the Great Lakes Marine Transportation System (MTS) moving during the difficult “hard water” months.

(Right: The Coast Guard Cutter Neah Bay takes a break from clearing a path along Lake Erie in Long Pointe on the Canadian side for Operation Coal Shovel, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009. U.S. Coast Guard/Photo by Petty Officer Bill Colclough)

Every winter we undertake two major operations during the icebreaking season to keep commerce moving – Operations Coal Shovel and Taconite. Operation Coal Shovel encompasses southern Lake Huron, St. Clair/Detroit River systems, and Lakes Erie and Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Operation Taconite encompasses Lake Superior, the St. Mary’s River and the Straits of Mackinac, Lake Michigan and northern Lake Huron. These operations are run jointly by the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards.

In addition to moving commerce, USCG icebreakers also assist the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with flood control for several communities in Ohio and Michigan. In February, our icebreakers cleared and flushed ice obstructing river flow in the Grand Rivers in Ohio and Michigan, reducing the potential for flood damage.

This was one of our most successful and safest icebreaking seasons in recent memory. While the number of overall vessel movements was lower than normal, the icebreaking level of effort remained considerable due to heavy ice conditions. We approached the 2008/2009 season with a slightly different strategy in mind. Before we started, we put everything on the table, brought all of the stakeholders together, and took a fresh look at the entire Great Lakes icebreaking mission, from resources to processes. We dedicated ourselves to running the mission using a “systems approach” supported by three legs- the U.S. Coast Guard, the Canadian Coast Guard, and the maritime industry (including both shippers and commercial icebreaking providers). No surprise that we found that mission success clearly depends upon solid partnerships and cohesive teamwork between the three supporting legs. A more formal report is forthcoming, but the following are three areas worth noting about the 2008/2009 icebreaking season:

1) The team achieved an unprecedented level of communication between industry, the U.S. and Canadian governments, and commercial icebreaking providers. The communication ranged from our pre-season all-stakeholder icebreaking conference to daily phone conferences between government and industry.

(Left: The Coast Guard Cutter Neah Bay escorts a Canadian bulk carrier along Lake Erie east toward Nanticoke, Ontario for Operation Coal Shovel, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009. U.S. Coast Guard/Photo by Petty Officer Bill Colclough)

2) We reduced the number of days our cutters were out of service for maintenance by 46 percent compared to last year, due in large part to the hard work of our cutter crews and maintenance personnel who maximized the amount of preventative work they were able to accomplish. Looking specifically at the critical Spring Breakout period (when the largest commercial ships start to sail after being laid up for nearly two months), our cutters were out of service only 11 cutter-days compared to 61 days during the same period last year. Another part of the success in keeping our aging cutters in operation can be attributed to recently completed engineering upgrades to four of our five 140-foot icebreaking cutters. Our tactical commanders also made smart decisions regarding where they deployed the icebreaking resources, and most importantly, they exercised excellent risk management and ensured consistently safe and efficient operations by our icebreaking fleet. The focus was on placing the right resource in the right place at the right time.

3) Our Atlantic Area commander temporarily deployed an additional 140-foot icebreaker to help on the Great Lakes this year. CGC Thunder Bay from Rockland, Maine, arrived on the Great Lakes March 31st after breaking ice in the Saint Lawrence Seaway. The deployment of the additional cutter from the Coast Guard’s First District in New England enabled the Coast Guard’s Ninth District to shift more icebreakers to the northern Great Lakes where greater concentrations of ice where found, while still providing resources in Lake Erie.

This is not a declaration of victory by any means, but we were clearly ready to answer the call this year. However, we don’t plan to rest on our performance. Every ice season presents its unique challenges and unpredictability. Preparations for the 2009/2010 icebreaking season are already underway, and we are collecting lessons learned and will combine them with input from industry to update our icebreaking policies. We are committed to building upon this successful year to improve the level of service we provide in the future.

Questions we continually ask ourselves are: What will our future mission requirements look like, and will we have adequate resources to meet those mission needs into the future?

To answer these important questions the Coast Guard uses a process called Mission Analysis. The purpose of this process is to assess the ability of the Coast Guard to successfully carry out a specific mission in the future by analyzing current performance level in contrast to mission goals. Where a gap in capability exists or is projected to exist, a mission analysis should identify additional functional capability or process changes necessary to meet the deficiency.

(Right: U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw breaks ice in Whitefish Bay, Mich., in support of Operation Spring Breakout, March 16, 2009. Spring Breakout encompasses northern Lake Michigan, northern Lake Huron, the St. Marys River and helps facilitate the spring shipping season in the Great lakes. U.S. Coast Guard photo/Petty Officer 3rd Class George Degener)

Our headquarters in Washington, D.C. has already started the process of contracting for the completion of an icebreaking mission analysis in the Great Lakes, and we expect to see that process in action before the end of 2009. This analysis will involve talking to our people, the Canadian Coast Guard and most importantly, our industry partners. In addition, we will reach out to segments of the maritime community including the 1000-foot Lakers, the commercial tugs that break ice for them, local municipalities that need our help to prevent flooding, and the recreational users such as ice fisherman.

This effort and the information we gather from stakeholders and the public will go a long way towards formulating answers on how we will conduct this mission for years to come. Bottom line, as “Guardians of the Great Lakes,” we are committed to provide the best possible level of icebreaking service to the Great Lakes maritime community.

Semper Paratus!

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