Coast Guard flares prompt 911 calls

Posted: Wednesday, July 21, 2010

ANCHORAGE - To some 911 callers, it looked like a fiery plane crash just offshore of downtown Anchorage. Others thought it was a boat in trouble.

Nope. It was just the Coast Guard practicing shooting emergency flares during a rescue exercise Tuesday morning in Cook Inlet.

Oops. No one thought to inform city authorities, who hustled fire crews to the scene after getting as many as half a dozen reports from worried callers.

"It never occurred to us that local fire would respond to an offshore exercise," Petty Officer David Mosley said.

Such yearly training exercises usually are conducted at a range at nearby Fort Richardson, but space was not available for Tuesday's flare practice, Mosley said.

He didn't know when a similar exercise had last been done in the inlet. But the Coast Guard's policy dictates that notifications about such inlet maneuvers go out to its district command office in Juneau and the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center. The Coast Guard also requires sending a radio broadcast to alert any boaters in the area.

Those procedures were all followed, according to Mosley. The Coast Guard is closely looking at whether all required procedures were followed, he said.

Tuesday's "misunderstanding" won't happen again, he said. Next time the Coast Guard has an offshore training exercise there, local emergency agencies will be in the loop.

The training drill lasted less than an hour and included two 25-foot boats and as many as 25 members of the Coast Guard's maritime safety and security team. It involved firing off three kinds of flares: some with parachutes, some that blew out sparks and smoke and others with just sparks.

With the flare show launched, the 911 calls started coming in to the Anchorage Fire Department, ranging from reports of boats in distress to a plane down. Callers said they saw smoke, fire and what turned out to be a big white buoy in the distant inlet.

Battalion Chief Jim Vignola, the incident commander, said the response was handled as the worst-case scenario, a plane crash. So nearly 20 department firefighters, divers and medics rushed with equipment to the downtown area and the city's small boat harbor. The department's inlet boat is out of service with a part on order, so one station brought over two inflatable rafts.

The boats were never launched. Vignola said once at the scene, crews could see the distinctive Coast Guard boats in the distance. Vignola placed a call and learned that a training exercise was going on.

"There was just a little disconnect," he said of local authorities being bypassed.

Not that being notified would have changed their actions.

"The bottom line is we would have responded to all those calls that came in the same way," he said. "Just because training is under way doesn't mean accidents don't happen."

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