US Coast Guard District 17: Arctic Shield & Cultural Responsiveness
Although the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) has served the Nation in ports, at sea and around the world for more than 200 years, USCG District 17 is unique because it is responsible for the entire state of Alaska. This means Native Alaskan cultural responsiveness is the key to many of its missions since the best way to help is to first ask how to help. One demonstration of this responsiveness is Operation Arctic Shield, which unites Alaskan Native experience with the U.S. Coast Guard mission to provide for the well-being, general safety, security and interests of U.S. citizens. An annual operation led by District 17, it brings water and boating safety education, and healthcare to Alaskan Natives. Working with public health services and tribal health consortiums, doctors, dentists and veterinarians are flown into small Alaskan communities. Alterations to standard procedures are required in the Arctic where common solutions are inadequate and prevention is vital to protect lives from the watery and cold weather risks of this unique environment.
USCG started Arctic Shield, first called “Arctic Crossroads,” in 2008 on Barrow’s North Slope to test platforms for their helicopters and boats. They needed to learn how to operate in such a harsh and remote setting. For instance, some villages outside the “hub” communities of Barrow, Kotzebue and Nome are so isolated that the only way to reach them when their ice runways melt in the summer is by boat or helicopter. And, fixed wing planes can only land in the winter when ice permits. When navigating their small boats, District 17 took one of the local whaling captains with them because of his extensive knowledge as compared to the Coast Guard “newcomers.” During such operations, they gained valuable knowledge on communications problems and on which helicopters were better suited relative to certain environmental factors.
Learning as a Two-Way Street
Little Diomede, an island in the Bering Strait, has been inhabited for about 4000 years. It is home to a community of approximately 115 to 120 people who live a subsistence lifestyle, hunting and surviving off the land. Similar communities dot the Alaskan landscape, the backyard of USCG District 17 activity. Children in these remote locations don’t have abundant opportunities to personally experience the outside world. So, Coast Guard corpsmen took the opportunity to do community outreach while talking about boating and water safety. “We wanted to reach out to the community not only to learn from them but also so they can learn about the Coast Guard,” states Joel Casto, tribal liaison for USCG District 17. This is one reason Arctic Shield has grown into a multi-pronged outreach program in the past five years.
Communications, food and housing can be easily overwhelmed in environments where only a small infrastructure exists. Therefore, asking Alaskan Native leaders when to make visits and how to operate during these visits is ingrained in District 17’s outreach process. It is as important a safety measure as any other aspect of what they do.
For instance, the Coast Guard started to plan ice-breaker ship operations to visit Stebbins and St. Michaels early one spring until they learned from their community contacts that it would endanger seal hunters on the ice. Another example are visits, which may be delayed for a week to schedule around hunting and berry picking, that are coordinated with village elders, tribal leaders and school principals. “We simply ask,” explains Cato, “and the beauty of that concept is that we’re right most of the time because we’re doing what they want to do.”
Providing Community Healthcare
The Alaska Community Health Aide Program (CHAP) and its network of approximately 550 Community Aides/Practitioners (CHA/Ps) are the frontline of healthcare in more than 170 rural Alaska villages. Doctors travel to the outlying communities twice a year, and the Coast Guard coordinates with the health consortiums to decide where healthcare is needed and how best to serve that need.
For the supplemental healthcare portion of Arctic Shield, Coast Guard corpsmen accompany medical professionals to Barrow and five surrounding North Slope communities as well as to Kotzebue and four communities in Norton Sound. USCG flies in either U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) or Coast Guard doctors in addition to USPHS dentists and veterinarians. Remote villages receive few visits from veterinarians, so the services they provide with Arctic Shield, such as inoculations for sled dogs, are especially important and appreciated.
Developing White Float Coats
When District 17 first ventured to small whaling towns for their outreach, the glaring necessity was life preservers. Whalers didn’t wear them because bright colors take away the element of surprise when hunting their massive prey; and stores didn’t even supply them. Upon realizing this, the Coast Guard’s first step was to ask tribal leaders what color would make the best camouflage. With the Alaskan landscape in mind, the response was white. They shared the idea with survival gear manufacturer Mustang Survival, which made a prototype that was brought back to the whaling communities the following year.
The whalers’ great interest prompted the Alaskan Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) Injury Prevention Program to supply white float coats, purchased by a sponsor, and users have since suggested changes to the product. One important alteration was to add pockets to the inside of the coat so communication device batteries could be kept warm close to the body. News spread about the advanced product, and white float coats are now in stock for sale in Anchorage and Kotzebue. According to Hillary Strayer, senior injury prevention specialist for ANTHC, “We’ve already received a lot of verbal, positive comments from float coat users.” Another issue that may be corrected is that the coats become noisier as the temperature drops. This happens because their synthetic shell material stiffens as it gets colder, thus making movements louder when the fabric rubs together. Sound, like bright colors, can scare away wild animals being hunted.
Outfitting Whaling Crews
ANTHC was able to coordinate funding during the past two years to outfit two crews in each of the 13 villages associated with the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.
The exceptions are Wainwright and Barrow, where one crew and five crews, respectively, were outfitted. The object was to reach as many communities involved in subsistence hunting as possible since hunting procedures differ in each community. “We wanted to see how well (white float coats) would work across the board,” says Strayer. In addition, two villages have located funding on their own in order to outfit all their crews. The hope is that interest continues to fulfill the greater goal, which is facilitating a behavior change. According to Strayer, ANTHC funded what they did “because this was something we really wanted addressed.” ANTHC encourages involvement from other agencies and communities as well.
Captain Preston Rookok’s six-member whaling crew, as well as one of the other 30 crews in Savoonga, will be using white float coats for a second time this season. “White float coats give us – at least me – the confidence to be on a boat in the water,” explains Rookok. During the spring season, if weather allows, the crew hunts every day. Whalers paddle 18- to 28-ft. animal skin skiffs that are vulnerable to capsizing and leave crew members with nothing to hold onto as they wait in frigid water to be rescued. Float coats retain body heat as well as keeping the wearer afloat in case of an accident. Rookok comments, “The Bering Sea is very unforgiving. The wind and the sea can come to rage in a matter of hours.” Crew members also use white float coats for walrus hunting, for camping on the boat and for any kind of boating activity.
Supporting Kids Don’t Float
Another effort concerning personal floatation device (PFD) use is the Kids Don’t Float (KDF) program, which has worked alongside Arctic Shield to reach the numerous communities of and around Barrow, Kotzebue and Nome. To date, 22 children wearing KDF life jackets have survived near-drowning accidents. Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death for children in Alaska, according to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Boating Safety. Through peer education, high-school students are trained and evaluated on giving classes to elementary students on how to select and wear the proper life jacket. The classes develop an awareness of cold water hazards and encourage safe water and boating behavior. “The program has caught on nationally and internationally as well,” states Mike Folkerts, boating safety specialist for USCG District 17.
KDF started in Homer, Alaska, in 1996 with 15 PFD loaner boards established by a grant from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) in collaboration with Homer Safe Kids, the Coast Guard Auxiliary and Homer School District. Before the end of 1996, USCG District 17 joined the growing number of partners contributing to the expanding program. Donated life jackets can now be borrowed from more than 600 loaner board stations located near harbors and boat ramps. District 17, the Alaska Boating Safety Program and Alaska DHSS conducted an observational study that showed wear-rates of children under the age of 17 increased by 25 percent in areas with loaner boards (2001).
Making a Difference
Thanks to these and many other wonderful efforts, Arctic Shield and other valuable programs continue to grow. “We’re trying to do this year after year so we can build it up and continue to make a difference,” says USCG District 17 dpi Lieutenant Scot Guesno, coordinator of the medical, veterinary and dental April and May Arctic Shield outreach. The U.S National Guard, U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force will be running a similar annual medical exercise, Arctic Care, in Nome and surrounding villages.
New plans for Arctic Shield may incorporate laser flares, a possible substitute for other kinds of signal flares that expire and sometimes don’t endure through extreme conditions when they are most needed. In addition, during 2012 Arctic Shield, USCG Great Lakes 9th District ice rescue specialists will be traveling to Barrow to learn how the local community executes ice rescue and to discuss what is being done in the Great Lakes region.
“The truth of the matter is that the Coast Guard doesn’t rescue very many people on the North Slope because we don’t have a presence there. They’ve been rescuing themselves for a long, long time. And, part of what we’re doing is learning how they do it and how that fits in with the services we can provide,” acknowledges Casto. This is just one example why cultural responsiveness and respect for diversity are so important to the U.S. Coast Guard and District 17. For them, learning really is a two-way street.