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Coast Guard rescue helicopter, on a mission in Rhode Island in 2013. Coast Guard rescue helicopter, on a mission in Rhode Island in 2013.

Coast Guard rescue helicopter, on a mission in Rhode Island in 2013.

By Mark Reynolds August 2, 2015

Coast Guard needs to work on its math

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter from Cape Cod had plucked three Canadian fishermen from a raft after their vessel sank more than 150 miles off the coast.

The resulting news release prepared by a Coast Guard public-affairs unit did not make an outright declaration that the Coasties had saved the men’s lives.

But the news release did conclude with this: "Every year the First Coast Guard District saves 350 lives in the Northeast."

We know the Coast Guard does some amazing things, but 350 lives, year in and year out?

We reached out to the public-affairs staff of the Boston-headquartered First Coast Guard District, whose jurisdiction ranges from the waters of northern New Jersey to Canada. Right away, Petty Officer Ross Ruddell told us that the 350 number is an average.  

An average of what, we asked.

After a day of research, Ruddell got back to us with the numbers: 385 for 2014, 338 for 2013 and 427 for 2012. So based on those numbers, Ruddell pointed out, the average was actually 383 -- not 350.

Which brings us to a second question: What does the Coast Guard mean by a life saved?

The organization, with a history dating to the U.S. Life-Saving Service in 1878, distinguishes between cases where people in peril were "saved" and other cases where individuals, even people with injuries, were "assisted."  So the Coast Guard does not tally a life saved every time it tows in a vessel with mechanical trouble.

Fair enough. We’ll accept the way they tally a life saved. And we have not tried to audit that number. What’s odd is the way the Coast Guard keeps using the number 350 in its news releases.

In a 2012 news release, a public-affairs officer declared that the Coast Guard saves "more than 350 lives" in the Northeast "per year."

In a news release in 2013, the agency claimed that it saves 350 lives "each year." In 2014, it sent out a release saying, "In an average year, the Coast Guard assists 3,300 lives and saves 350 lives across the Northeast."

And of course this summer, a news release concerning the fishing boat that sank 150 miles out at sea concluded: "Every year the First Coast Guard District saves 350 lives in the Northeast."

Our Ruling

That’s not strictly correct.  It was 385 lives saved in 2014, 338 lives saved in  2013 and 427 lives saved in 2012.

In its news release, the Coast Guard failed to say that 350 was an average, as they did in 2014.  And the average for the past three years is 383 not 350. So the news release understates the value of the Coast Guard’s work.

The service is strong on the sea, weak in math. But because in two of the last three years the service saved more than 350 lives, we rate this claim Mostly True.

(If you have a claim you’d like PolitiFact Rhode Island to check, email us at [email protected]. And follow us on Twitter: @politifactri.)


Our Sources, "U.S. Coast Guard Hoists 3 Canadians from Drifting Liferaft after boat sinks 150 miles offshore," July 20, 2015, accessed July 24, 2015, "Coast Guard Saves Three After Boat Sinks Off Cape Cod," July 20,  2015, accessed July 27, 2015, "U.S Coast Guard Search and Rescue Summary Statistics, 1964 thru 2013," Jan. 1, 2014, accessed July 27, 2015, "Coast Guard rescue crews pull two from burning sailboat near Point Judith, RI," Nov. 15, 2013, accessed July 27, 2015, "Always Ready United States Coast Guard 2013 Performance Highlights, 2015 Budget In Brief," accessed July 27, 2015, Office of Search And Rescue, "SAR Program Information," accessed July 27, 2015

Interview, Petty Officer Ross Rudell, July 28-29, 2015

Interview, U.S. Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer, Chad Saylor, July 28, 2015, "Coast Guard Medically Transports Pregnant Woman From Martha’s Vineyard to Boston," July 16, 2014, accessed July 28, 2015, "After Probable Hoax Call, Coast Guard Emphasizes Consequences, Impact On Operations," June 12, 2012, accessed July 28, 2015, "First Coast Guard District Crews Save 400 Lives This Year," July 30, 2010, accessed July 29, 2015


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