Fishermen's News - The Advocate for the Commercial Fisherman

Newport's Rescue Helicopter Rescued

Coast Guard air facility gets reprieve until 2018


The US Coast guard helicopter from the Newport, Oregon air station often participates in the annual Blessing of the Fleet in Yaquina Bay. Commercial fishermen say keeping the helicopter stationed in Newport is a matter of life and death and the key to swift rescues at sea in the Pacific Northwest's frigid water. Photo by Maria Rock, F/V Kylie Lynn.

Since October 2014, folks in Newport, Oregon – led by commercial fishermen and their families – have rallied to keep US Coast Guard officials from closing the rescue helicopter facility stationed there for almost three decades.

After twice successfully delaying the closure – originally set for November 30, 2014 – Oregon congressional leaders managed to secure federal legislation to keep the facility open until January 1, 2018 just in time to avoid its closure scheduled at the beginning of this year.

"The Newport helicopter is a literal life-saver, a vital protection for the Oregon coast's residents and visitors," said Oregon Senator Ron Wyden.

Wyden and fellow Senator Jeff Merkley, along with representatives Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader, announced the deal in mid-December – an early Christmas gift for Newport's commercial fishing families as the delayed, but always dangerous Dungeness crab season, and a January 1, 2016 closure of the air facility, loomed. The US House passed the Coast Guard Authorization Act (H.R. 4188), followed by approval from the US Senate. It prevents the closure of any Coast Guard facility until January 1, 2018. Even then, Coast Guard officials may close a facility only if the Secretary of Homeland Security can demonstrate that they can meet standard rescue response times with remaining facilities, or if conditions in an area do not require an air facility.

The bill also authorized funding to help modernize the Coast Guard's older vessels and other assets.

The Newport air station began operating in 1987, but it literally took an act of Congress in 1986 to get it. Oregon's congressional delegation pushed through an act appropriating $15 million for the Coast Guard to build and operate the air station. Newport and Lincoln County officials donated land and services, and community members did everything they could to accommodate.

Several attempts to close the facility since then were thwarted by clear evidence of its necessity.

Coast Guard leaders announced the most recent plans to close the Newport facility on October 2, 2014, blaming budget cuts mandated by the US Department of Homeland Security. It galvanized folks who live, work, and play on Oregon's central coast. They responded swiftly and boldly to challenge the decision, including a lawsuit filed by a commercial fishing family support group called Newport Fishermen's Wives.

If the Newport air facility closed, the nearest rescue helicopter bases are in North Bend (near Coos Bay), 95 miles and another hour in flight time south, and Astoria, 133 miles and more than an hour's flight time north. To be plucked alive from the frigid, briny Pacific, minutes and seconds matter. Even zipped into the newest generation of survival suits, spending an extra hour awaiting rescue in the icy, rough waters off the Oregon coast is a gamble, fishermen noted.

"Quick response and rescue are key to surviving cold water immersion," said Ginny Goblirsch, co-owner of a Newport-based family fishing business.

While most commercial fishermen and marine science researchers are equipped for survival, Goblirsch said recreational fishermen, boaters and other ocean users and beach visitors generally aren't.

One hour without a survival suit or life raft, fishermen note, would turn almost any Coast Guard response from a rescue mission to recovery of lifeless bodies.

The frigid and treacherous Northwest waters and traffic to the Port of Newport – with Oregon's largest base of commercial fishing vessels, a booming recreational fishing industry, the presence of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Operations center, and the port's newly-renovated international with the anticipated start of log shipments soon and the possibility of bringing in small cruise ships for coastal cruises – create conditions, they say, that would cost lives without helicopter support nearby.

"When things go wrong out there, as they sometimes do, we trust that the rescue helicopter will be there in minutes," said Michelle Longo Eder, a successful Newport attorney and author of "Salt in Our Blood: Memoir of a Fisherman's Wife." "We have survival suits and life rafts, EPIRBs to locate vessels. But nothing replaces a swift rescue."

Local officials say helicopters from Newport are dispatched an average of 50 times per year for all types of water rescue efforts. Emergency responders say shutting down the Newport air facility would also hamper local police, fire, and search-and-rescue operations all along the coast.

Their worries are now over, at least for the next two years.


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