The Night Shift

by Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher D. McLaughlin

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -The sky is set a blaze with warm colors of red and orange as the setting of the day’s sun falls closer to the horizon. Night is fast approaching and is welcomed by a blanket of thick, warm, vaporous fog. Laughter set off by undertones of a ping-pong ball slapping against a table is heard from the open window of the cafeteria at Coast Guard Station Barnegat Light, N.J.

Members of the Coast Guard for the most part don’t have a regular nine to five schedule. They take turns standing duty, duty that keeps them away from their homes and keeps them at work all night. After 5 p.m. the regular work crew heads home. The atmosphere at work becomes a mixture of work and play. The night crews spend their time doing activities ranging from patrols to video games. Some families even come to the station to join them for dinner with the kids. Working after hours is a sacrifice, but it is also a big part of the job.

Station Barnegat Light is one of many Coast Guard stations that dot the coast. The people who work there spend more time together at the station then they do at their homes. After the regular workday, a crew of 12 people remain ready to respond at a moments notice. They are the night shift.

Most nights, the Barnegat night crew pushes tables together in the cafeteria and places enough chairs for all of them to enjoy dinner.

“The smaller group is little more personable, and we eat all our meals together,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class James Aiken, a crew member at Station Barnegat Light.

After the meal and a game of ping-pong, some of the crew heads up to their dorm-style rooms to get dressed in cold-weather survival gear. They are making preparations to head out into Barnegat Inlet aboard one of their 47-foot boats.

“Every evening, as the sun goes down, and every morning, as the sun rises, we are underway reporting back the conditions and the water temperature of the Inlet,” said Petty Officer 1st Class George Daws, a crewman at Station Barnegat Light.

The small boat crew heads out to sea, the light from the nearby lighthouse cuts through the wall of dense fog. The crew makes their report and heads back to the station for the evening. During the trip back, one crewmember makes a plan to raid the kitchen of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while others plan to head off to the gym and workout.

Working together for so many days and hours builds a bond among the crews where they become a substitute family to one another.

“It’s definitely a big family, and we all treat each other like a family,” said Seaman Apprentice Michael Hilbert, a crewman at Station Barnegat Light. “It definitely makes it more personal. You’re working with these people, you know them, their life story, and your relationship with them is more meaningful.”

After a time, the crew completes their activities for the evening and heads off to their rooms to go to sleep. The hallway at the bottom of the stairs rests quietly in the dark except for the red glow of an exit sign at one end. Near the exit sign, a watch stander in the communications room passes the radio guard to another watch stander at another unit. He then crawls into his sleeping bag on the fold-out bed he took out of the closet moments before. With the hum of the radios near him, the lull quickly fades him off to sleep.

Meanwhile, 35 miles to the southwest of Barnegat Light, the night crew at Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City, N.J., is settling into their nighttime routine.

Lt. Bruce Kimmell, a helicopter pilot at the air station, is visited by his wife and three daughters with a slow-cooker full of pasta in tow.

“I bring him dinner so he doesn’t have to order pizza every night,” said Andrea Kimmell. “I won’t see him until Monday night, and I like to come up and see him at the end of the day.  It’s not that bad when he’s working at night. I would prefer to have him home though, but you get used to it.”

After dinner, Kimmell follows his wife and kids out to the parking lot carrying the slow-cooker his wife brought for him. He loads his kids into the minivan, kisses them goodbye and says farewell to his wife.

The operations center at the air station, normally abuzz with activity and radio static, is eerily quiet during the night shift, adding calm to where there otherwise is not.

“At night you can have periods of total downtime with nothing going on where at other times you have everything breaking loose and you’re it – No one else to help you,” said Thomas Peck, a 17-year veteran search and rescue coordinator.

The hours a SAR controller works are long. Each controller works a 12-hour shift, and at night they’re usually working alone.

During slow nights, the inactivity can put you in a lull. You have to keep your brain active by doing something Peck said.

There is a contrast between working during the day and at night. With the nightshift come sacrifices, but the sacrifices the crews make are for the sake of the job. The job they were trained to do to keep those traveling the seas safe while the rest of us sleep.

“My three little girls know daddy’s got the duty,” said Kimmell. “I miss my family. I like to spend as much time with them as I can, but duty is duty. My house is not far from the airport, so I tell them if they hear a helicopter flying over, it’s me.”

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