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When Alaska fisherman Lloyd Gilman was hoisted aboard a Coast Guard helicopter March 26 after his fishing boat sank in the waters near a state park, he became the 109th person saved in the state since Oct. 1.

Rescuing stranded fishermen, or flying sick patients from remote villages in the state, is routine business for the 17th Coast Guard District headquartered in Alaska’s state capital, Juneau.

“Search and rescue is our number one mission,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Russ Tippets, the Coast Guard’s 17th District spokesman.

“We’re responsible for an area roughly equivalent to the size of the lower 48 states.”

Covering that area are 48 Coast Guard units and detachments based throughout Alaska. They’re responsible for patrolling 45,000 miles of coastline.

The 17th District commander also is commander of both Naval Forces Alaska and Maritime Defense Command 17.

Approximately 2,000 active-duty members, 54 reservists, 198 civilian employees and 389 members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary make up Alaska’s “Team Coast Guard,” Tippets said.

“Rescues are pretty commonplace,” he said. “Alaska can be a dangerous climate”

In fiscal year 2002 the Coast Guard saved 90 lives and helped another 739 people in Alaska, he said — and fiscal 2003 appears likely to eclipse those figures: Since Oct. 1, 109 lives have been saved and the Coast Guard has helped 146 people in distress.

Tippets said the Coast Guard Command Center in Juneau last week dispatched helicopters to search for a 13-year-old reported missing in Southeast Alaska after water swamped his skiff.

“He used a soup can to bail water out of the skiff, then beached it near a highway,” Tippets said.

The boy walked 26 miles from where he abandoned his skiff, Tippets said; U.S. Forest Service searchers eventually found him in good condition near Petersburg, Alaska.

Tippets said Coast Guard forces in Alaska also routinely step in when weather grounds commercial flight services. “We’re constantly doing medical evacuation missions, almost like an air ambulance service,” he said. “Most small villages up here don’t have hospitals.”

But operating helicopters for rescues or medical evacuation missions doesn’t come cheap, he said.

Coast Guard aviators fly the HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter — which costs an average of $10,566 an hour to fly.

“These helicopters are usually used in conjunction with other Coast Guard assets,” Tippets said. “Our 378-foot cutters that patrol the Bering Sea cost an average of $7,497 an hour to operate.”

Bering Sea search-and-rescue operations involving both ships and helicopters can come to $20,000 an hour, he said, adding, “The routine medical evacuations we do up here in the villages usually last two or three hours, so it gets costly.”

Who pays?

“It’s all taxpayer money,” Tippets said.

And more of it may be spent in the months ahead: Just before the first U.S. attacks in Iraq, Homeland Security director Tom Ridge announced Operation Liberty Shield, which gave the Coast Guard a larger role in protecting American borders.

“We will increase security at our borders; there will be more Coast Guard air and sea patrols off our shores and in our ports,” Ridge said during a March 18 Washington news conference.

Tippets said 54 reservists have been called to active duty in Alaska but more are needed.

“Almost all Alaska reservists have been called up,” he said. “Now we’ll start dipping into the lower 48 states for more.”

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