2018-02-10 / News

Mackinac Marine Rescue Continues To Expand

By Jacob A. Ball

Since 2015, Mackinac Marine Rescue has been building relationships with other rescue teams, and the resulting scope of its service has expanded to emergency response throughout the region, often in tandem with the United States Coast Guard, Mackinac County Sheriff’s Office, Michigan State Police, and area first responders. The city’s marine unit, a division of the volunteer fire department, relies on the support of these area communities, businesses, and individuals, which helps fund training exercises and operations of its 31-foot rescue boat.

The crew includes drivers Dan Wightman, Sam Barnwell, Mike Olson, and Alan Burt and deckhands Justin Wright, Cory Kaminen, Trey Pereny, and Stephanie McGreevy.

“I wanted to do more boating in general, but if I can help people out at the same time, that is pretty cool,” says Mrs. Mc- Greevy, the newest member of the crew.

During the 2017 season, Mackinac Marine Rescue assisted in 46 emergency calls, including 23 medical evacuations, 10 search and rescue calls, and 13 assists to other agencies. Requests for assistance comes from building relationships with units on the mainland, Mr. Barnwell said, and working with these agencies improves the knowledge, confidence, and capabilities of the local crew.

When it was first organized in 2015, Mackinac Marine Rescue introduced the boat during public events at area communities and the crew participated in area training exercises with other responders. As the unit became better known, calls for assistance climbed from fewer than 25 in 2015 to around 50 for the past two years.

Last July, Mackinac Marine Rescue assisted the Coast Guard with a stranded sailboat during the Port Huron-to- Mackinac Island yacht race. At Station St. Ignace, Coast Guard Senior Chief Boatswain’s Mate Andrew Babione said the rescue of the nine people on board could have turned out differently if not for Mackinac Island’s “professional and skilled response.”

“The MMR team brings a lot of force to the fight,” he said. “Having trained to meet, and at times exceed, the Coast Guard operational standards, the capabilities MMR possesses have been critical to mission success.”

In turn, Mackinac Marine Rescue will request assistance when conditions exceed its capabilities, such as medical evacuations from the Island at night in rough seas. But as training continues, the crew’s capabilities increase.

“The water, Mr. Barnwell said, “is ever-changing and extremely dangerous.”

In 2017, the crew logged 483 training hours, alone and with other agencies. Dan Wightman was the most active, logging 127 hours on emergency and training responses.

“Dan is a really wonderful guy, and he really knows his stuff,” Mrs. McGreevy said.

Training includes boat handling, navigation, and line handling as a crew.

“It’s not just what one person is doing for training, it’s what the crew is doing,” Mr. Barnwell said.

More experienced crewmembers concentrate their training on boat handling in confined spaces near docks, piers, and other vessels for situations when heavy winds and seas pose a threat.

Mackinac Marine Rescue has also participated in special multi-agency training exercises, including a simulated emergency response on Mackinac Island and in Moran Bay in September with two units from the Michigan National Guard. The local unit was responsible for initial detection and identification of a threat, and the transmission of information to the other units. According to Mr. Barnwell, every emergency has to begin at the local level, because even if another agency is needed to respond, a local partner must report the incident to begin with.

“Whenever we can get involved in these big training exercises, they are invaluable to MMR,” he said.

The exercises identify deficiencies and limitations so they can be corrected before a real response.

Sam Barnwell and Alan Burt attended a training seminar at the Center for Radiological Nuclear Training in Nevada. The boat is equipped with a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive detection system, which is used during the Labor Day Mackinac Bridge Walk and the Les Cheneaux Islands Antique Wooden Boat Show.

Critical support for Mackinac Marine Rescue comes from the City of Mackinac Island, Mackinac County, the Village of Mackinaw City, Mackinac State Historic Parks, Star Line Ferry, and Chad and Larry Belonga of St. Ignace. The city and county provided most of the $125,000 local match required to obtain the boat, and the Mackinac Island Community Foundation and Enbridge Energy also contributed. The aluminum boat sports two 300 horsepower engines and cost just under $500,000. It was obtained under a federal Port Security grant administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Mackinaw City provides fuel at cost and allows access to the gas pumps day and night.

Equipment storage space is provided by Mackinac State Historic Parks at the Visitors Center, where the boat is docked in the summer. The building formerly housed the Coast Guard rescue station.

“Since the early 1900s, it has been a facility that has somehow been involved in the lifesaving services in the northern Great Lakes,” Mr. Barnwell said. “To be able to continue on the heritage of Mackinac Island as a lifesaving station, and being able to work out of that building, we take such pride in that.”

Star Line Ferry store the boat free in St. Ignace.

Chad and Larry Belonga have been of tremendous help with launching, servicing, and towing the boat each season, Mr. Barnwell said.

This winter, Mackinac Marine Rescue is developing a comprehensive training guide for new members.

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