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Senate panel OKs plan to save rescue choppers

Coast Guard helicopter during flyover Barrington.  | Joe Cyganowski~For Sun-Times Media

Coast Guard helicopter during a flyover in Barrington. | Joe Cyganowski~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 22, 2012 1:42AM

A bipartisan effort by Illinois senators is underway to keep Coast Guard facilities open in Waukegan and Muskegon, Mich.

U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk said the Senate Committee on Appropriations voted Tuesday on a U.S. Department of Homeland Security funding measure which included language denying President Obama’s 2013 budget request to close seasonal Coast Guard air facilities in Waukegan and Muskegon.

The 2013 Homeland Security Appropriations bill, which includes the Durbin-Kirk language, will now advance to the full Senate. As part of its 2013 budget request, the Obama administration recommended replacing the five HH-65 Dolphin helicopters based out of Air Station Traverse City in Michigan and the seasonal air facilities with three smaller HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters.

According to documents provided by the Coast Guard, the closure plan would have increased Coast Guard air rescue response times to southern Lake Michigan from the current 14 minutes to one hour and 21 minutes. Considering the U.S. Search and Rescue Response Force, individuals lose consciousness in 40- to 50-degree water after 30 to 60 minutes and have an expected survival time of one to three hours.

“The Coast Guard helicopters stationed in Waukegan are critical to the safety of Illinoisans who use the Great Lakes for both recreation and business,” said Democrat Durbin. “Moving the station to Michigan would more than quadruple the time needed to respond to emergencies near Chicago. For a stranded boater, the move could literally be the difference between life and death,” he said.

A spokesman for Kirk said that “each year, thousands of Illinois residents swim and boat in southern Lake Michigan with a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter only minutes away in Waukegan. Under the previous Coast Guard’s proposal, the closest helicopter would have been in northern Michigan — over an hour away. We will continue to work with Senator Durbin and Congressman Robert Dold to stop this misguided plan.”

The HH-65 helicopters that are stationed at Waukegan Regional Airport and Muskegon have helped save lives. In May 2008, AIRFAC Waukegan saved seven individuals when a 36-foot charter boat, the Fin Seeker, sank more than three miles off the Waukegan shoreline.

Since 2005, the Waukegan air facility participated in operations saving or assisting a total of 14 lives. The Muskegon air facility assisted or saved 28 lives since 2004.

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