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October 1, 2009

Officers asleep as Patriot was lost

Gloucester fishing tragedy now textbook training case

Click here to read Rear Admiral Brice-O'Hara's statement

The delayed effort to unravel signals of the calamity that sank a Gloucester fishing boat in January was caused by analysis-paralysis in an inexperienced Coast Guard chain of command while two senior on-duty emergency response officers slept.

A congressional subcommittee reviewed these findings yesterday — and wanted to know why.

Without commenting directly about the flaws in the performance of the service in the sinking of the Patriot, which claimed the lives of two Gloucester fishermen, Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara, a search and rescue expert, conceded training and orientation of duty officers needed improvement.

The only witness in a two-hour hearing, she also said more staffing would allow a shortening of the 24-hour shifts that found key decision-makers at the Sector and District levels in Boston sleeping — as allowed — while, down the chain, inexperienced officers wrestled with information overload and indecision in the early morning hours of Jan. 3.

"The Patriot case will be imbedded in our training," the admiral told the committee.

Brice-O'Hara's prepared remarks and answers relied on generalizations, and contended that search and rescue training and performance had improved.

But Congressman and subcommittee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, countered that the Coast Guard's performance in the sinking of the Patriot suggested otherwise.

"This is not some hypothetical, this is real stuff," he said.

Brice-O'Hara conceded that "we have to instill within watchstanders a complete sense that any question, any need for assistance in standing their watch tautly and properly, should never be considered something embarrassing.

"They should have the understanding that they can call somebody else," she answered.

"By the time the first asset was launched from Air Station Cape Cod," the subcommittee briefing paper reported, the Sector Boston operations unit commander, whose job it is to coordinate search and rescue responses, "had participated in 20 phone calls over the previous two hours amounting to one phone call every six minutes," and confessed to suffering from information overload that hindered effective, acute thinking.

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