Local news reports of Coast Guard accidents and fatalities have circulated for some time now, particularly after the 9/11 attacks expanded the service’s responsibilities. After the attacks, the Coast Guard was thrust into the spotlight even more by Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
But no news organization had taken a comprehensive look at the recent accident record of the fifth branch of the military. In a 2011 speech to service members, the picture became clearer when then-Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp called the accident record “unprecedented.” His remarks were virtually ignored outside of the Coast Guard.
The Center for Investigative Reporting began its probe by studying official findings from accidents and annual reports the Coast Guard issues on its safety and fatality trends. But instead of relying on the graphs and charts that officials elected to include in those reports, CIR sought the raw data behind them.
For those who are interested, the raw data is available here in a zip file.
To get this information, we first submitted a Freedom of Information Act request in February 2012, seeking the contents of two databases the Coast Guard uses to track accidents internally – one for aviation crashes and another for incidents occurring on land and at sea.
That same month, a helicopter went down in Mobile, Alabama, killing all four Coast Guard crew members on board.
Although the Coast Guard is responsible for promoting boating safety and regularly releases information on accident trends, uncovering data on its own safety record didn't come so easily. More than two years after our initial request, CIR still was pressing the Coast Guard to release more detailed data. Early data batches from the Coast Guard lacked key information or simply were inaccurate.
The Coast Guard eventually turned over the agency’s eAVIATRS and E-MISREPS databases. CIR also examined voluminous records about the career and attempted court martial of Lt. Lance Leone and studied several accident investigation reports from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard.
The data arrived in five spreadsheets – three for aviation accidents and two for those occurring on land and at sea. CIR focused on mission-related incidents, returning frequently to Coast Guard officials with questions and key findings. CIR compared the data to summary statistics from the Coast Guard to ensure its accuracy.
Many of the records dated back as far as the 1980s, but we looked at the period from 2000 to 2013 to understand the impact of the 9/11 attacks and subsequent creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which merged the Coast Guard with all or part of 21 other federal agencies.
Among the things we learned: The monumental changes made after 9/11, including the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, are here to stay. But sustained scrutiny is required to understand whether the public interest has been protected by those changes.