The Real Story of How the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers Program was Rescued from the Coast Guard

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The SS Marine Electric sank 36 years ago this month and one of the legends emerging from the tragedy was that a spontaneous wave of reform swept over the Coast Guard at that time.

The legend of reform is true, but the image of a spontaneous movement of reform fluidly seeping through the agency and maritime safety institutions is not.

More apt a metaphor? Reformers achieved new standards and programs by drilling through granite and blasting through marble barriers.

A case in point was the final release of the Marine Board of Investigation report itself. The final draft — highly critical of the Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping inspection standards — was held up at headquarters for months. Only when Captain Domenic A. Calicchio  — with great damage to his career — threatened to release the report to the public did the Commandant release the findings. And then, a major part of the report, removing third party private inspection agencies from the process, was rejected.

Still, the report, and a crackdown on very old ships helped usher in a new era of safety and awareness — one that helped prevent major catastrophes at sea for 30 years.

The point is only this: reform does not happen easily. And the Coast Guard particularly has a history of resisting it. The helicopter, for example, was assigned a third cousin status for years in favor of sea-plane rescue strategies.

And it can be said that in its favor, once the Coast Guard is set on reform, the agency moves with resolve and thoroughness.

Such was the case in the formation of the now famous rescue swimmers program of the Coast Guard. The Marine Electric tragedy showed the need for such a service. One Navy rescue swimmer at the site of the sinking was able to help some mariners plunged into the cold water off Virginia, but the Coast Guard rescue helicopter could only lower baskets to men too cold to cling to the devices for rescue.

The loss of 31 men — many to hypothermia — was not enough to spur the Coast Guard of itself to seek the reform, even with a friendly Congress willing to fund the service.

US Rep. Gerry Studds of Massachusetts held hearings on a bill to form the rescue swimmer program just five months after the disaster and grilled Commandant James S. Gracey about Coast Guard views on the rescue swimmer program. At that time, Admiral Gracey was at best non-commital.

Here’s the transcript.

Mr. STUDDS: At our hearing on July 27, we received testimony that the Navy estimates that Coast Guard personnel would be able to participate in the (Navy rescue siwmmer) program at a cost of $1530 per student. Has the Coast Guard made a decision about whether or not to begin particpating?

Admiral GRACEY:. No, we haven’t. We are looking at it, evaluating it, trying to see what questioning the value would be for us in our rescue work and whether the costs would be justified.

Mr. STUDDS: When this subject came up, it was a surprise to me, frankly, that the Coast Guard did not have trained rescue swimmers. There are none in the Coast Guard; is that right?

Admiral GRACEY: We have a lot of people who swim very well but we do not have trained rescue swimmers per se.

Mr. STUDDS: I guess I should have known that. What could be a more obvious appropriate skill for an agency who principal mission is search and rescue in the water?

Admiral GRACEY: If I may just briefly tell you a story about a lifeboat station in Lake Michigan when I was District Commander there. They believe in swimming and they were all trained swimmers. One day, the were on a rescue and suddenly discovered they had all gone in the water. There was nobody in the boat. We would like to keep people around the boat and we are not too wild about everybody leaping into the water. So there is a great difficulty in making sure that you would have a trained swimmer on each and every rescue. Obviouosly, it has got a lot of benefit and I wouldn’t refute it. What we are trying to find out is how to make it work and whether it is worth getting into that specific theme or some other.

Mr. STUDDS: If that is the element of thinking, I can see we are not going to get very far in terms of helicopters and aircraft.

Admiral GRACEY: We sure don’t want them leaping out of those.

Studds and Congress did a lot more than argue the point. When the Coast Guard leadership continued to drag it’s feet, Congress forced the issue and required the Coast Guard to create the school. Rescue swimmers now regularly jump out of helicopters of course and have saved thousands of lives.

“It’s another example of how specific legislation is required to get the Coast Guard to improve maritime safety,” said Richard Hiscock, an industry safety advocate who was involved in the legislation requiring the establishment of the Rescue Swimmer program. school.”

“It’s also another example of the Coat Guard resisting change — and then once the change was forced upon them, implementing it with great skill and conviction,” Hiscock added.

The lesson is only this: If you want to drive change within the Coast Guard, you really have to hammer it through.

The obvious may present itself — in the form of the need for choppers, rescue swimmers and better safety inspections.

Tragedy may drive that message home. (All maritime reforms are written in blood, one historian wrote.)

But at the end of the day, only courage and single-minded persistence can make the reform real.

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