In response to reports that for some regattas, yacht club parties and even weddings, the Coast Guard assigns boats and crews to enforce “safety zones” on heavily trafficked waterway, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said that he was asking the Coast Guard for details on the costs involved with the safety zones they establish for private parties.
Blumenthal, the senior senator from Connecticut, made his request after learning that documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests and interviews by The Associated Press show Coast Guard crews are involved in providing security at no expense for dozens of privately sponsored events in the New York and Long Island Sound sectors.
“There’s a strong argument that private organizations, whether clubs or private parties, should bear the cost instead of taxpayers,” Blumenthal said.
Unlike police agencies that provide security support for private events on land, the Coast Guard does not seek reimbursement, leaving the bill to taxpayers. The deployment of resources varies for each event, but in the case of a two-hour event for a July wedding on Long Island Sound the Coast Guard sent two 25-foot boats that are worth $1,500 an hour — for a total of $6,000.
The patrols can be ordered at the discretion of Coast Guard officials across the United States, but no sectors are busier than those for New York and Long Island Sound, which are responsible for waterways that are congested with yachts and powerboats during the summer.
Coast Guard officials say their patrols are part of their congressionally mandated mission to protect the boating public, including those who might put themselves at risk by approaching for a closer look at fireworks. To them, it makes no difference whether the event sponsor is a town or a private party.
While the New York and Long Island Sound sectors dispatch boats for many private events, such deployments are the exception in at least one of the other busiest sectors, San Francisco, where the Coast Guard has overseen safety measures without conducting patrols itself for events including Google’s “Night at Sea” fireworks displays last December.
Lt. Cmdr. Amy Wirts, of the Northern California sector, said sponsors generally provide on-water security through contracts with police, which do receive reimbursement.
Sponsors of any event on the water must apply for a permit and, while most are approved, the security measures depend on the complexity of an event. If a “safety zone” is deemed necessary to keep other boats away, the Coast Guard at a minimum publishes a notice in a federal register and advises boaters to keep their distance over a radio broadcast. A Coast Guard official, the captain of the port, decides what assets will be deployed judging by factors that include the scale of the event, the time of day and the anticipated amount of boat traffic.
Coast Guard officials in Washington said they do not keep data nationally on how different sectors enforce safety zones. Around the country, sectors said the decision to send out active-duty boats depends on factors that vary widely from one case to another.
Coast Guard officials said they could not provide a cost estimate for patrolling the zones because the events vary so widely. But a manual of Coast Guard reimbursement rates lists small response boats at about $1,500 per hour and medium-size boats at more than $8,000 per hour, in the event they are dispatched for what turns out to be a hoax. The Coast Guard does reimburse its volunteer auxiliary for fuel used when helping patrol the zones.