Security and rescue operations on Great Lakes waters are changing. The U.S. Coast Guard is planning to temporarily shut down eight Coast Guard stations around the Great Lakes.
It’s the beginning of a larger transition aimed at improving the efficiency of stations around the nation. But Ashtabula, Ohio, doesn’t want to see its Coast Guard unit go.
Sixty miles east of Cleveland, Ashtabula sits on the coast of Lake Erie. Its Coast Guard station is a small house along the Ashtabula River.
The city’s Coast Guard station is one of those along the Great Lakes facing seasonal shutdowns. So for Ashtabula and three other stations in Michigan, crew members will work out of other stations during winter and early spring. Further west, four stations in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan will be on a weekend-only rotation from Friday to Sunday – even in the summer.
Ashtabula County officials are not happy about the plan. City managers from the county’s three cities – Geneva, Ashtabula, and Conneaut – gathered in a meeting room at the county’s old courthouse along with each city’s fire and police department chiefs.
County Commissioner Dan Claypool worries that water rescue response times might be longer. Coast Guard boats would have to come from the stations at Fairport Harbor, Ohio or Erie, Pennsylvania if the station is ‘seasonalized.'
“If we have to depend on a response out of Erie and or Fairport – that leaves us about an hour of response time,” Claypool says. Claypool, along with the 10 community leaders in the meeting, have been fighting this decision since they first heard about it eight weeks ago. “I don’t think anybody in this room thinks an hour response time to an emergency is acceptable.”
Geneva Fire Department Chief Dale Arkenburg says that only the Coast Guard is capable of handling problems when the water is rough.
“The resources that the county water rescue team has are not boats worthy of being on the lake in certain conditions,” he says. “The conditions have to be favorable – during a rescue sometimes that’s not the case.”
Thomas Smile remembers one of those times. He hunts ducks on Lake Erie. “I’ve seen boats go down -- it was just bobbing up and down. The Coast Guard came down and got it,” he says. “We were on the other side and there was nothing we could do because we’d have to cross rough water to get it.”
Smile, born and raised in Conneaut, has been hunting since he was 14. He knows the ins and outs of Lake Erie, but he says not all duck hunters have that knowledge. “Here’s my point – If the lake’s at the point where I feel like I don’t trust it – I don’t go out. But you have people that have traveled for miles to go hunt,” he says.
“You think they’ll give up their day of hunting because they think the water is a little rough?," Smile says.
The discussion has moved beyond Ashtabula county lines, too. U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown sent a letter to the Coast Guard Commandant in May, requesting a private discussion about Ashtabula. His office says they are in the process of scheduling that meeting.
According to Lorne Thomas of the Coast Guard, the main reasons for the shutdowns are advances in technology and overlapping coverage between stations. And with some areas covered by four or five stations, Thomas says the Coast Guard isn’t busy enough to keep every facility open. From October to April over the last eight years, Station Ashtabula had 50 calls to their station, total – and 11 of them were false alarms.
“If a fireman is called up once every two years, he or she is not going to be that good,” Thomas says. “You can have a fireman with a bucket on each corner but how effective, how proficient are they going to be?”
Thomas says these Great Lakes stations are the first of many nationwide that will face shutdowns. “There’s an effort also in New England, which they’re going to look at for next year. Also in the mid-Atlantic states somewhere between New Jersey and Virginia.”
As the changes affect Coast Guard stations across the country, there may be communities like Ashtabula and city managers like Jim Timonere, who want to hold on to their Coast Guard station 365 days a year.
“Seeing these men and women from our US Coast Guard going in and out of these shops and shopping along Bridge Street, spending their time here,” he says. “They’re connected to us and we’re very connected to them. We’re going to do whatever we can to keep them here.”
The head of the city’s Coast Guard Station, Officer in Charge Pate, agrees – but he sees both sides of the decision. “I do love it here. We have a great community out there that me, my wife, and my family love being a part of,” he says. “At the same time, I understand that the Coast Guard is going keep moving forward. To do that, sometimes we just have to make the difficult decisions.”
The details of each station’s plans are still being ironed out – a couple of stations may maintain ice rescue capabilities. And then there’s the question of when the boating season begins and ends – but Thomas says the seasonal schedule will be flexible. A final decision on the shutdowns will be made by the Commandant this summer.
Great Lakes Today is a collaborative of WBFO Buffalo, ideastream in Cleveland, and WXXI Rochester.