ANCHORAGE - The Coast Guard's increased emphasis on national security is good news for Alaska because it means more boats in the water and more emphasis on safety as well, the agency commandant said Thursday.
Adm. Thomas H. Collins, head of the Coast Guard since May 30, said the agency's security mission does not diminish its traditional roles of search and rescue, marine safety, environmental protection and enforcement of fishing treaties.
"The security and safety roles are not oil and water," he told reporters, repeating testimony he gave to Congress. "In fact, they're synergistic. You invest in one and it supports the other."
Collins was in Anchorage for the annual awards and fund-raising banquet of the Coast Guard Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life of guardsmen and their families. Tables at the affair sold for $1,000 and the fund-raiser was expected to clear $275,000, said Jim Caraway of Milwaukee, chairman of the foundation's national board of directors.
Caraway, who as a great-grandson of Skagway's infamous Soapy Smith has an Alaska connection, will join Collins in Valdez today to dedicate a new $500,000 recreation center built with foundation money.
As spending for security increases, the Coast Guard's safety mission also improves, Collins said.
For federal fiscal year 2003, the Coast Guard's budget will increase nearly 20 percent, Collins said. In previous years, budgets stagnated and his predecessor, Adm. James Loy, worried about "stealing from maintenance accounts" to pay for operations.
"You can only do that for so long and your readiness deteriorates dramatically," Collins said.
"We're going to have full-up maintenance accounts, and full-up gas accounts and pay accounts and the like so that we'll be able to provide a full range of services, a higher readiness posture across all our missions than ever before," he said.
Coupled with the 2002 supplemental budget, the Coast Guard will add 2,200 personnel to its current level of 36,000, Collins said.
Part of that increase will be in staff at several stations in Alaska, he said.
The agency also will add about 1,000 personnel next year to the Coast Guard Reserve.
The state will benefit from the agency's Deepwater Program, which will spend up to $17 billion to replace and upgrade long-range vessels and aircraft, plus control systems and sensors. Such cutters are required in the Bering Sea and the Aleutians.
"That's Alaska stuff. You're a long-range state," Collins said.
The first new cutters are expected in late 2005 or early 2006. Together with their accompanying aircraft, the ships are expected to increase surveillance capability 500 percent, Collins said.
Another contract signed last month will recapitalize the agency's coastal VHF and FM distress and calling system, filling in geographic gaps in Alaska. The system is old, tired, analog and lacking in direction-finding capability, Collins said.
"We're going to fix all those things with a $611 million contract," Collins said.