The Surfrider Foundation has turned to data mapping in the quest to help save a U.S. Coast Guard search and rescue helicopter in Newport.
A cartographer working with the California-based nonprofit environmental group used seven years of incident response data from the Coast Guard to demonstrate the value of a rescue helicopter in Newport to commercial fishermen, recreational boaters and surfers on the central Oregon Coast.
Last year, the Coast Guard wanted to withdraw a MH-65 Dolphin helicopter from Newport because of budget constraints. Search and rescue operations would have been handled by crews at Air Station North Bend to the south and Air Station Astoria to the north, roughly 45 minutes to an hour in flight time from Newport.
While the Coast Guard maintained that emergency response times would still have fallen within its two-hour national standard, commercial fishermen, recreational boaters and surfers countered that the cold water and rough seas along the central Oregon Coast demand swifter reaction to save lives.
The Oregon congressional delegation helped win a delay through legislation that prevents the Coast Guard from shuttering the air facility in Newport until next January.
The Coast Guard has since stated in a federal court filing that it has no plans to cease helicopter operations in Newport, but many believe the helicopter remains at risk.
Charlie Plybon, the Surfrider Foundation’s Oregon policy manager, who is based in South Beach, said some of the rationale from the Coast Guard for closing the Newport air facility was based on national standards and trends.
“We were just really feeling like that wasn’t the full picture and we wanted to kind of see what search and rescue and response for the Coast Guard looks like here in Oregon specifically,” he said.
The Surfrider Foundation obtained incident response data from 2007 through 2013 for Newport, Astoria and North Bend from the Coast Guard through a Freedom of Information Act request. The data track incident responses from all Coast Guard assets at the three locations, not just the rescue helicopters, and place Newport second behind Astoria in responses.
The Coast Guard has said that if Newport were to close, it would still have three MH-65 Dolphin helicopters in North Bend and three MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters in Astoria to patrol the Oregon Coast.
“This is all about our respect and admiration for those that serve us and provide a huge benefit to our community and safeguard our community,” Plybon said. “These guys are our friends and neighbors and it’s really sad for us to see this kind of decision-making being handed down from a high level with no real community concerns or interest.”
Curran McBride, a cartographer and geographic information systems analyst in Anchorage, Alaska, prepared a data map for the Surfrider Foundation — at www.savethehelo.org — that focuses on the air facility in Newport as well as broader maps for The Daily Astorian that look more closely at the air stations in Astoria and North Bend.
(Readers can scroll through the incident response data prepared for The Daily Astorian at: http://arcg.is/18FbXDI)
McBride cautions, since he did not have the Coast Guard’s area of responsibility plotted for each air station, he spatially correlated each incident to the nearest air station. The process, he said, could have left some overlap in incident responses between North Bend and Air Station Humboldt Bay in California and between Astoria and Air Station Port Angeles in Washington state.
Despite the limitations, the data offer a detailed look into Coast Guard activity on the Oregon Coast over several years.
The Coast Guard’s move to place a rescue helicopter in Newport in 1987 came after public outcry over several accidents, including the deaths of three fishermen whose boat, the Lasseigne, capsized in 1985.
But the Coast Guard now insists that improvements to communications and search and rescue capabilities enable the guard to serve the central Oregon Coast from North Bend and Astoria.
The Newport Fishermen’s Wives, who had campaigned for a rescue helicopter in Newport after the Lasseigne tragedy, has filed a federal lawsuit to block the closure of the Coast Guard’s air facility in Newport. The city of Newport, Lincoln County and the Port of Newport have also joined the suit.
U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that oversees the Coast Guard, has asked the Guard for a cost-benefit analysis of the possible closure.
“The Coast Guard is under tremendous budgetary pressure, but it is impossible to understate how critical having helicopters nearby is to Oregon’s fishing industry, coastal visitors and residents,” the congressman said in a statement. “According to SAR (Search and Rescue) data, this air facility responds to approximately half of the emergency calls on the central Oregon Coast and without it, people in imminent danger will have to wait in cold water and casualties may result.
“It is imperative that the Newport air facility stay open and I will push for increased Coast Guard funding, and will try to add language to the Coast Guard reauthorization bill that prevents the Coast Guard from reducing critical functions in Newport and elsewhere.”