Geared up for Rescues on Long Island Sound

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By WXedge Staff on November 18, 2011, 12:00am

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When emergencies happen on Long Island Sound the Coast Guard answers to the call. They don't take the task lightly, relying on forecasts and conditions for their plan of action. And they have the tools to back it up.

The challenges of a Connecticut Coast Guardsman vary with the seasons.

"When you're trying to endure 8 hours, 10 hours underway, it can definitely take its toll," said Chief Boatswain's Mate Ralph Kugel said.

"During the summer time there are a lot of cases, a lot of law enforcement, search and rescue cases," said Boatswain's Mate First Class Michael Winiarski. "Now, during the winter time, the cases do slow down but the impact of that case is extreme."

And the risk is magnified.

"You have to worry about the cold, the fatigue that sets in," Kugel said. "The weather is much more unpredictable. Storms can flare up if you're not paying attention to the weather, which is something we always advise the public when they're going out; to keep an eye on the weather, check the weather, check it hourly if you can."

The weather dictates the type of gear Coast Guardsmen wear.

"The last thing you want to be is trapped out there, not able to do anything, taking on water on your vessel, taking on the spray, being exposed to those elements," Kugel said. "And if you don't have the proper gear on it's not going to end well."

A dry suit is used in frigid temperatures.

"It has a neoprene neck seal, on the wrist it also has rubber seals and it's an enclosed zipper, so when this person goes in the water no water will intrude in the suit at all," Winiarski explained.

Other suits are used in 50 to 60 degree temperatures and aren't intended to keep the water out at all.

"There are several zip ties right here and down below another set of zip ties. Water will get inside and the water will stay against your body and keep your body warmer because the inside water temperature will stay warmer as opposed to the outside," Winiarski said.

You also don't need to wear a life jacket with this suit. "This suit creates 17 1/2 pounds of buoyancy, keeping you afloat," Winiarski said.

In warmer temperatures, though, sailors can simply grab a life jacket.

"The advantages to wearing this -- it's very light, small, compact and you can move around very easily," he said. "Inside it actually has a CO2 cartridge, so when I pull this, a pin comes into the CO2 and inflates the bladder and it actually will inflate and will keep you afloat."

In life or death situations out there speed a factor in terms of trying to get into gear as quickly as possible.

"Speed is definitely a factor," Winiarski said. "You want to get this suit on as quick as possible, to get out to get on the boat, to get underway."

Which doesn't leave much time to get suited up. That takes practice. I tried on a 9 pound dry suit, which took me about 8 minutes. Coast Guard members train to get into that suit in about a minute.

And they do. We timed them. 41 seconds.

But in a real life search and rescue case the clock is still ticking. Someone's life is on the line. And a lot of times they don't know what they're going to find until they pull that victim on board.

"That's why we have a lot of medical gear, rescue survival gear on board," Winiarski said.

"The water temperature in Long Island Sound will drop down to 40 degrees sometimes, which is extremely cold. The survivability isn't very long in that type of water."

To give you an idea of just how vital this gear is, the survivability rate in the water goes from about 20 minutes to up over 8 hours with a suit on.

"Sometimes you do have those days when there's an unfortunate situation and a lot of times you take it very personally," Kugel said, "and you do feel like it's almost a member of your family you've lost and you don't necessarily want to give up searching."

But U.S. Coast Guardsmen never lose sight of their goal -- saving lives while staying safe themselves.

"Everyday I think I'm amazed by the work that we do," Kugel said. "It's phenomenal when you think about that we put ourselves in harm's way sometimes to go out there and save somebody's life. And when you do it's very, very rewarding."

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WXedge Staff

Town: New Haven, CT  

Reporting for WXedge since February 2012.

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