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Collins, in South Portland, criticizes proposed Coast Guard cuts

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Collins, in South Portland, criticizes proposed Coast Guard cuts

SOUTH PORTLAND — U.S. Sen. Susan Collins on Wednesday criticized a budget proposal that would cut U.S. Coast Guard spending and urged the service to commission Bath Iron Works to build its next generation of cutters.

Collins spoke at the Coast Guard station in South Portland to commemorate the completion of an upgraded marine-911 communications system called Rescue 21.

The Maine Republican said that when she first took office in 1996, the Coast Guard was staring down a 30 percent reduction in capacity because of its aging fleet. Some cutters, she said, are more than 40 years old and in desperate need of replacement. 

The situation hasn't changed since then, she said.

"Doing more with the same cutters is simply unsustainable," she said. "When budgets are tight, the administration must ensure resources are available to the Coast Guard."

Collins decried a budget proposal in Congress that she said would cut the Coast Guard budget by $350 million, calling the plan "penny wise and pound foolish."

She commended the Coast Guard for its work during natural and man-made disasters, including the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina.

"It was right on the cusp of the response" when the hurricane struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, she said. "It was an example to other agencies that failed."

Collins, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and a member of the Senate Committee on Armed Forces, also lobbied the Coast Guard to choose BIW for the next generation of high-speed cutters.

"It takes time to build a Coast Guard fleet," she said. "Since Bath Iron Works has the most skilled workforce in the world and produces the best ships in the world, I think there's a vital opportunity for the Coast Guard to team up with Bath Iron Works."

Rescue 21, which launched in 2009 and now covers 41,000 miles of the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts, will aid the Coast Guard in its search-and-rescue missions, Collins said. 

The network replaces the analog National Distress and Response System, which was in place since the 1970s. The billion-dollar system was designed and deployed by the defense contractor General Dynamics, which was the fourth-largest recipient of defense contracts in 2010, raking in more than $4 trillion in revenue.

General Dynamics is also the No. 2 top contributor to Collins over the course of her Congressional career, according to OpenSecrets.org.

Rescue 21 closed 88 known coverage gaps in the Coast Guard's domain. In the Coast Guard's Northern New England sector, which includes Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and part of New York, 10 towers pinpoint the location of distress calls, greatly reducing the time it takes for the Coast Guard to respond.

"The old communication system was unbelievably hit-or-miss," said Vice Adm. John P. Currier, a Westbrook resident who is the second-highest ranking Coast Guard officer in the nation. "Undoubtedly, people perished."

In the Operation Center for Station South Portland, where Guardsmen monitor Casco Bay, Collins and Coast Guard officers watched a demonstration of the new system led by Lt. Nick Barrow. 

In a recorded distress call, a voice crackled through static: "May day. May day," the voice said before cutting out. Rescue 21's towers pinpointed the source of the call to a location just off Matinicus Island. 

Under the old system, Barrow said, the location would have been far less precise and the response would have involved two boats, one helicopter and about 1.5 hours of searching.  Rescue 21 reduced that mission to 30 minutes and one boat. 

That precision saves the Coast Guard a lot of money, Barrow said. The response cost only about $2,500; under the old system it could have cost up to $43,000. 

"This is really impressive," Collins said. "Very impressive."

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.