3 Things The Coast Guard Does to Prepare for Emergencies

Posted 08.30.2011

Irene1 The turmoil and damage caused in the Northeast last weekend by Hurricane Irene is just the latest reminder of how much we rely on first responders like the U.S. Coast Guard in times of emergencies and natural disasters. There was some dramatic video released yesterday of a  Coast Guard helicopter rescue of a boater in distress off the Rhode Island coast during the storm. Military.com provides a nice summary of the Coast Guard’s Hurricane Irene operations in this article.

There’s definitely a lot of courage displayed by first responders in emergencies but there’s also a lot of preparation and training on display as well.  As I wrote here last week, I recently had the opportunity to spend the weekend at sea with the crew of the USCG Cutter Venturous. The patrol that I was on was the first time on board for about a third of the 80 person Venturous crew. The training started immediately upon departure. Once we were under way, a series of drills were executed to get the crew prepared for emergencies that might arise. First up was a man overboard drill. You can see some highlights from that in this video:

The first afternoon at sea ended with an abandon ship drill and the morning of day two started with a migrant onboarding drill. Members of the crew were given the opportunity to come up with a plan for rescuing migrants from a raft, bringing them on board, securing them, processing them and sheltering them.  Here are some video highlights of the drill:

Not surprisingly, because it was the first time doing this for many of the crew, there were some kinks and bottlenecks in the process. It was a very fortunate thing, however, that the crew had the chance to run and debrief the drill. Twenty minutes after it ended the commanding officer announced that he had just gotten word that the ship would be bringing 15 Cuban migrants on board in about three hours. He wasn’t joking. A drill had quickly turned into the real thing.

Next week, I’ll share a video of the crew preparing to bring the migrants on board but, for now, here are three things I learned about how the Coast Guard prepares for emergencies:

  • Practice Makes Perfect:  If someone goes overboard or the ship has to be abandoned, you don’t want people figuring out what to do in real time.  As you saw in the man overboard drill video, a lot of people are involved to perform a rescue – the crew on the bridge, spotters on deck, a swimmer, a team to support the swimmer and hoist him and the rescued person back in and others that I haven’t mentioned.  It’s a lot of coordination.  It’s the same thing with an abandon ship drill or a migrant pick up. Giving the crew the chance to learn their roles, see how others perform theirs and literally walk through the activity raises both competence and confidence.
  • Work from a Script But Be Ready to Improvise:  One of the big things I noticed onboard is that the Coast Guard has checklists for just about everything. Every drill or procedure has its own checklist.  That’s reviewed before, during and after the event. Of course, a checklist can’t account for everything that might happen. When the unexpected comes up, the crew needs to improvise. It works because they’re improvising within the guardrails provided by their checklists and training.
  • Look Into the Future:  After the migrant drill ended and the crew was preparing for bringing actual migrants onboard, I was really impressed by the debriefs of the lessons learned from the drill and how the crew built on those to anticipate what was going to be needed over the next several hours.  I had a chance to talk with the executive officer about how he was leading these conversations.  He told me that he was working on getting the crew to strike the right balance between the tactical and the strategic. He was all about teaching his crew to look out to what was likely to happen and then reverse engineer back from that picture to take the steps that would allow them to be well prepared.

What the public usually sees from the Coast Guard are the highlights of heroic rescues and actions they take at the height of an emergency or disaster. It takes a lot of work and preparation, though, to be an effective hero.

What have you learned, in your experience, about what it takes for you and your organization to be ready for an emergency?