Coast Guard Auxiliary trains volunteers in boating safety

In a cool room protected from the 90-degree weather of Las Vegas stands North Las Vegas Flotilla Cmdr. Barry Keller, encouraging people to join the Metro Las Vegas Flotilla of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.

The auxiliary is a uniformed volunteer service organization that supports maritime safety, security missions and administrative and support services. Keller is a five-year member. He spent six years on active duty with the U.S. Army and 18 years with the Tennessee State Guard.

“We help save lives,” said Keller. “We get people that come to us that have a boating background, and then there’s some people that the closest that they get to water is their bathtub. We train people so that they can go out there and help others.”

Although the group officially formed in July, it already has 26 members. It is also the first auxiliary unit in the nation to partner with the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration. Volunteers are provided with training courses centered on boating safety.

The group performs free safety checks to recreational and commercial fishing vessels, promotes marine pollution awareness and recruits members to the Coast Guard on Lake Mead and parts of the Colorado River. Members can choose to participate in patrol, training, recruiting, public affairs, vessel safety, and search and rescue.

Training courses are free, but members are expected to pay an annual fee of $52, with additional fees for auxiliary social functions, uniforms and attachments, and safety equipment.

Prospective members must be 18 or older, U.S. citizens and be able to pass a basic background check.

“Our members are very diverse,” Keller said. “We have military vets, students and people with emergency service backgrounds.”

Another incentive for basing the group in North Las Vegas is that Nellis Air Force Base is nearby. Keller hopes retired military members will be attracted to the group. He said the average member’s age is 64 and that approximately 25 percent are retired.

The group is in need of bilingual speakers to volunteer at Lake Mead. There is another unit that meets at Lake Mead on the last Saturday of the month.

“Las Vegas is a 24/7-type town,” Keller said. “Not everyone works Monday through Friday, so we try to meet during the week to reach more members.”

Six advanced specialty courses are offered in patrols, communications, seamanship, piloting and navigation, weather, and search and rescue.

“Every year, people die at Lake Mead from drowning because of alcohol and unsafe boating practices,” Keller said. “The weather can get turbulent, and people aren’t prepared for that.”

Lake Mead National Recreation Area spokeswoman Christie Vanover said eight drowning incidents and three missing persons have been reported this year at the lake. The annual average falls between eight and 15.

“In all cases, the individuals were not wearing their life jacket,” Vanover said. “That’s where the auxiliary really helps us out. They educate people on the importance of wearing a life jacket.”

Keller added that members are active in community involvement, which could entail assisting The Salvation Army or helping during a natural disaster.

Congress established the group in 1939. It is authorized to perform the same missions that the Coast Guard performs, with the exception of direct law enforcement and military action. The auxiliary has members in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Guam.

“I’ve always had an interest in service,” said Wendy Park, a potential member. “Plus, it gives me an opportunity to participate with a government group, while extending my teaching abilities.”

The group has partnered with Red Rock Search and Rescue and the North Las Vegas Office of Emergency Management.

“The only active-duty Coast Guard component is the three people that work in the recruiting office,” Keller said. “For all intents and purposes, we are the Coast Guard for Las Vegas.”

The flotilla meets at 7 p.m. on the third Monday at the North Las Vegas Airport, 2730 Airport Drive. The next session is set for Sept. 15.

To attend a meeting or for more information, call Keller at 702-219-2236 or visit goaux.us.

Contact North View reporter Sandy Lopez at slopez@viewnews.com or 702-383-4686. Find her on Twitter: @JournalismSandy.

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