U.S. Coast Guard, Protector of Lake Michigan | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

U.S. Coast Guard, Protector of Lake Michigan

On these hot summer days, there's probably no better place to be than close to Lake Michigan. But as anyone in the U.S. Coast Guard can tell you, the lake isn't just for play. There are security risks. The Coast Guard keeps an eye on Navy Pier, the marinas, even large factories.

Rebecca Vojtech readies for another training mission out on Lake Michigan. Vojtech's a seaman with the U.S. Coast Guard assigned to the Calumet Harbor Station in South Chicago.

She and three other crew members are on a 41-foot utility boat. It's primarily used for search and rescue missions.

VOJTECH: I've been in almost a year now, straight out of high school.
PUENTE: Has it been an enjoyable experience?
VOJTECH: So far, yes. Love the water.

Vojtech's one of 49 active duty seamen working at one of the largest and busiest Coast Guard stations in the Great Lakes.

VOJTECH: A lot of people don't know about the Coast Guard and the Great Lakes. It's a big enough area of water that you would think so, but most people don't.

Vojtech slowly maneuvers the boat beyond the break wall, leaving behind the picturesque view of Calumet Park beach and Coast Guard station.

The station itself operates very similar to that of a firehouse. It has sleeping quarters and a mess hall. Its jurisdiction is more than 200 miles of coast and waterways. That includes just south of Navy Pier to Burns Harbor in Porter County, Indiana, and all the way south near Peoria.

HINKEN: 24-7, 365. There's always somebody here.

That's Bradley Hinken, the station's commander.

HINKEN: There's not always somebody up, but there's always somebody ready to go. They are trained and equipped that within 30 minutes they can get have the boat done and on the way to the rescue.

Hinken says the station averages about 120 rescue missions a year. Summer months are busiest.

HINKEN: The boats hitting the break water; we've had a couple of boats sink in boating accidents. Even though I think the overall boating traffic is down, we've had more cases than we've had last year.

BROWN: It's a misconception coming from the ocean that the Great Lakes are not anything major that they have to worry about.

Unit Leader Ryan Brown.

BROWN: But the weather comes up very quickly and when it does it can get really choppy so you can get 12 foot waves in a very short amount of time just because how the wind is blowing.

On this day, the four-member crew is heading toward Gary, Ind. to assist in the city's air show by setting up a safety perimeter on the Lake. It's about a 30 minute ride. During the trip, Brown calls for practice drills. He throws a life preserver over and tells them to pretend this is someone in need of rescue.

VOJTECH: Man overboard! Starbird side! 145 … 25 yards …080...30 yards.

Brown tells Vojtech to keep her eyes on the preserver at all times.

BROWN: I've literally been on cases where someone took their eyes of the PIW and they've died as a result. Anyone who's been on a case like that doesn't want to see that happen because all three of us have been on cases where somebody has died because of these little things that didn't pan out.

The other part of this job is patrolling sensitive installations on the Lake.

The Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security and is charged with monitoring areas such as the Chicago Water Reclamation District near Navy Pier and some of the larger factories along the lake in Northwest Indiana.

BROWN: It's one of the primary things we do here. We do patrols and we basically keep an eye out for anything that looks suspicious, reporting and things like that.

Brown's been in the Coast Guard for three years and wants to make a career out of it.

BROWN: I got into the Coast Guard because it's a life-saving organization. We train to save lives. It's like a fire department and a police department all rolled into one. So, the whole objective is safety and when people get into a bad situation, we go out to get them.

The Coast Guard will be setting up a water safety perimeter for next month's Chicago Air and Water Show. The Coast Guard was one of the main attractions at the city's first water show in 1959.

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