Low staffing, oldSearch-and-rescue, the U.S. Coast Guard's main reason for existing, has serious problems, according to a new report by the Department of Transportation's inspector general.
The staff is overworked,
a federal report says
Missing Big Isle fishermen rescued
after Coast Guard spots flare
Staff and wire reports
Staffing nationwide is so low that Coast Guard men and women must work an average of 84 hours a week, leaving them so stressed and fatigued that boat accidents involving the service have increased 225 percent over the last two years, the inspector general found.
Seventy percent of those assigned to Coast Guard stations last year arrived with little training in seamanship and water survival, and none was trained in small-boat handling or search-and-rescue. Meanwhile, 84 percent of search-and-rescue small station boats were old and "not ready for sea."
In Hawaii the Coast Guard has attempted to keep search-and-rescue operations fully staffed and instead have made cutbacks in administrative positions and long-range operations, such as fisheries patrols, said spokesman Chief Petty Officer Gary Openshaw.
Search-and-rescue teams, however, are often staffed with untrained, lower-ranking enlisted people, with little time for training, he said.
Search operations keep the teams so busy, they have little time for training, Openshaw said, citing the example of the search for the Japanese fishing vessel Ehime Maru, which went on for 27 days.
Where Hawaii's search-and-rescue operations fall short is in equipment, he said.
"Some of our cutters are becoming aged, and our aircraft is getting old," Openshaw said. "If we have four airplanes and three are broken down, that severely affects what we can do."
The Coast Guard in Hawaii covers an area of 12 million square miles, with four aircraft and four helicopters out of Barbers Point.
The Coast Guard, overseen by the Transportation Department, patrols 95,000 miles of coastline and 3.5 million miles of territorial and economic zone waters. But Inspector General Kenneth Mead said there are distress-call gaps in 88 areas in the continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Guam. They include four zones, ranging from less than 100 square nautical miles to as large as 400 square nautical miles, in Washington and Oregon combined. Alaska has 18 such zones, some ranging more than 800 square nautical miles.
The inspector general's report noted that the National Distress and Response System, the maritime version of 911, has gaps in 14 percent of its coverage area and limited radio direction-finding capabilities, which prolong searches and delay sorting out distress calls from hoaxes.
"There are areas that we don't have VHF coverage in Hawaii," said Eric Hedaa, Coast Guard public affairs officer.
During the past year the Coast Guard has installed three new VHF towers and is working to get full coverage in Hawaiian waters, Hedaa said.
In Washington, D.C., Mead's assessment was recently presented to the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who expressed concerns about the findings.
"There is one mission that we all expect the Coast Guard to be able to perform consistently and completely: search-and-rescue," she said. "Increasingly, however, the Coast Guard is not as prepared as it should be in handling this core mission. And the shortfall is especially bad in my part of the country."
Murray said she is concerned the Coast Guard will not meet its goal of saving 93 percent of mariners in imminent danger. In the Northwest the rescue rate was 80 percent last year.
Lt. Chris Haley, spokesman for Rear Adm. Erroll Brown, commander of Coast Guard District 13 -- which encompasses Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana -- said the regional office is feeling stresses like those addressed in the report.
"We are working people harder than we like," Haley said. "We have plans to fix some of those things. We also feel fortunate that we have someone else (Murray) concerned about improving the quality of life of our men and women."
On June 1, Brown told Murray's committee his district is experiencing "an experience gap" as veteran, mid-level Guard personnel at the first-class and chief petty officer levels leave the service.
"In this district it is affecting our motor lifeboat surfmen at our search-and-rescue stations," Brown said during a Seattle field hearing.
Brown also said his search-and-rescue command centers still lack modern equipment that can automatically record and play back distress calls -- a problem Mead said was addressed servicewide several years ago.
Mead said the Coast Guard's most ambitious modernization projects must compete for dollars against the Federal Aviation Administration, Amtrak and an ambitious 20-year modernization of high-seas capabilities that the Coast Guard needs.
"Staffing, training and equipment problems impacting the search-and-rescue program today have been identified, documented and discussed in Coast Guard studies, reports and testimonies dating back to 1981," Mead concluded. "However, Coast Guard has yet to implement many of the recommendations contained in these studies and reports. Rebuilding the search-and-rescue infrastructure and restoring small boat station readiness will require serious management attention."
Last year, Coast Guard Commandant James Loy went hat in hand to Congress, with the service $225 million in the red. Loy directed Atlantic and Pacific commanders to reduce the number of days cutters spend at sea and aircraft flight-hours by 10 percent.
"It breaks my heart to say so, but it's true," Loy said at the time, acknowledging the cutbacks meant increased response times for some rescue missions and fewer drug and migrant interdictions.
Congress this year is looking at a $4.9 billion Coast Guard budget for fiscal year 2002, as well as a $100 million supplemental budget to cover shortfalls from the $4.5 billion 2001 budget.
Usually squeezed financially each year, the service is in financial trouble this year mainly because of higher energy costs and increased pay and benefits. To help make ends meet, it recently recalled all port security units that had been sent overseas to protect U.S. naval units after the bombing of the USS Cole.
Two Big Island fishermen missing since Thursday night were found on their boat after a Coast Guard rescue team spotted a flare at 5:20 p.m. yesterday.
Missing Big Isle fishermen
rescued after Coast
Guard spots flare
The 2 men are found 54 miles off
the Big Island's South Point
By Leila Fujimori
The Coast Guard C-130 Hercules airplane located the 22-foot fishing vessel 54 miles northwest of South Point with commercial fisherman James Kanuha, 34, of Kailua-Kona, and Dominic Gomes on board.
"I was worried because there's a storm coming that way, and if they didn't find them by dark, I would be really worried," said James Kanuha's father, Zachary Kanuha, shortly after receiving the good news from the Coast Guard.
"I'm so happy and glad he's found. All of the family is here waiting."
Many of his son's friends scoured the area in their boats trying to find the missing fishermen.
The Coast Guard plane dropped food, water and a radio while the Coast Guard Cutter Assateague made its way to pick up the two men and tow the boat back to Keauhou Harbor. Conditions were rough, with winds at 20 knots and seas at 8 to 10 feet.
James Kanuha and Gomes went out Thursday from Keauhou Harbor. Kanuha's family reported him missing at 10:30 p.m. Thursday after friends were concerned that he may have been in trouble.
Another Big Island fisherman reported he had helped Kanuha at 3 p.m. Thursday with the boat's electrical problems after it broke down 15 miles west of Kau Loa Point.
Zachary Kanuha said the boat, the Kinoole, was equipped with a radio, but it was probably inoperable since it relied on the electrical system.
Kanuha said the experience is a good wake-up call, and he will encourage his son to get better communication equipment.
"I thank the Lord because everybody was just praying," Kanuha said. "It was the only thing we could do. I guess our prayers were answered."