NEW HAVEN, Conn. — At private parties on the waters of Long Island Sound, lined by some of the country's most exclusive real estate, hosts setting off elaborate fireworks displays enjoy a little-known benefit. Security is provided, at no expense, by the U.S. Coast Guard.
For some regattas, yacht club parties and even weddings, the maritime agency assigns boats and crews to enforce "safety zones" on the heavily trafficked waterway, just as it does for public fireworks displays such as the Macy's Fourth of July celebration in New York City.
Unlike police agencies that provide security support for private events on land, the Coast Guard does not seek reimbursement, leaving the bill to taxpayers. The deployment of resources varies for each event, but in the case of a two-hour event for a July wedding on the sound, the Coast Guard sent two 25-foot boats that are worth $1,500 an hour — for a total of $6,000.
The patrols can be ordered at the discretion of Coast Guard officials across the United States, but no sectors are busier than those for New York and Long Island Sound, which are responsible for waterways that are congested with yachts and powerboats during the summer. Documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests and interviews by The Associated Press show Coast Guard crews are involved in security for dozens of privately sponsored events in those sectors.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said in response to the AP's findings that he was asking the Coast Guard for details on the costs involved with safety zones for private parties.
"There's a strong argument that private organizations, whether clubs or private parties, should bear the cost instead of taxpayers," Blumenthal said.
Coast Guard officials say their patrols are part of their congressionally mandated mission to protect the boating public, including those who might put themselves at risk by approaching for a closer look at fireworks. To them, it makes no difference whether the event sponsor is a town or a private party.
"We're not protecting the wedding. We're protecting the people from the wedding," said Charles Rowe, a Coast Guard spokesman in New York. "The American people have the inherent right to use federal waterways with certain restrictions."
The New York and Long Island Sound sectors dispatch boats for many private events, but such deployments are the exception in at least one of the other busiest sectors, San Francisco, where the Coast Guard has overseen safety measures without conducting patrols itself for events including a "night at sea" fireworks show last December by Google.
Lt. Cmdr. Amy Wirts, of the Northern California sector, said sponsors generally provide on-water security through contracts with police, which do receive reimbursement. The commander of the New Haven sector, Capt. Edward Cubanski, said varied approaches reflect differences in threats and the complexity of waterways.
One evening in July, two orange boats carrying nine Coast Guard service members, all clad in body armor and some carrying handguns, drove into Long Island Sound toward a wedding at the Glen Island Harbour Club in New Rochelle, New York. The mission was to keep other boaters 1,500 feet away from the barge launching celebratory fireworks. Charlie DeSalvo, executive producer of Fireworks by Grucci, estimated the 15-minute display cost close to $100,000.
"This is a world-class Grucci choreographed barge," DeSalvo said. "This is not a fireworks show that would normally be produced for the local fire department at their carnival."
The guests invited for the wedding and fireworks gathered on Glen Island, which is connected to the mainland by a drawbridge and taken up mostly by a park that was first developed as a summer resort by a congressman in the 19th century.
The Coast Guard boats passed a lighthouse and New York City's Throgs Neck Bridge before arriving at the scene around 8 p.m., when they turned on blue law enforcement lights. Petty Officer 2nd Class Geoffrey Burns pointed to direct boaters away from the barge, and the driver sounded a siren as they pulled up to one boater.
"I need you to go this way," Burns told the driver.
As fireworks sizzled in the sky and exploded into brilliant colors, Jason Grimm, a chief warrant officer, said the crew had to stay extra-vigilant. Although there wasn't much boat traffic, perhaps because of the choppy water, boats could have drifted into the zone. The Coast Guard remained at the scene for two hours, lingering after the show ended as the barge cooled.
The safety risks were driven home by an accident in 2012 when a yacht capsized in Long Island Sound during an outing to watch privately sponsored Fourth of July fireworks, killing three children. The skipper blamed a wave, but safety experts said the boat was overloaded.
Sponsors of any event on the water must apply for a permit and, while most are approved, the security measures depend on the complexity of an event. If a "safety zone" is deemed necessary to keep other boats away, the Coast Guard at a minimum publishes a notice in a federal register and advises boaters to keep their distance over a radio broadcast. A Coast Guard official, the captain of the port zone, decides what assets will be deployed judging by factors that include the scale of the event, the time of day and the anticipated amount of boat traffic.
Coast Guard officials in Washington said they do not keep data nationally on how different sectors enforce safety zones. Around the country, sectors said the decision to send out active-duty boats depends on factors that vary widely from one case to another.
The New Haven-based Long Island Sound sector of the Coast Guard deployed active-duty vessels, auxiliary Coast Guard boats or both for most of the safety zones involving fireworks displays last year, according to Lt. Ben Duarte, the sector's chief of waterways management.
Of 60 safety zones listed in the sector's register last year, the agency said, 21 were sponsored by a city or town. The rest were privately sponsored, including many fireworks displays put on by yacht clubs and beach clubs. Some of the privately sponsored events, including a fireworks display by the tribe that owns the Foxwoods Resort Casino, are offered for public benefit.
In the New York sector, 31 of 43 safety zones that received patrols last year were supported by active-duty Coast Guard, with the rest supported by local law enforcement or auxiliary Coast Guard, according to records obtained by the AP. About half of the events are typically privately sponsored.
Coast Guard officials said they could not provide a cost estimate for patrolling the zones because the events vary so widely. But a manual of Coast Guard reimbursement rates lists small response boats at about $1,500 per hour and medium-size boats at more than $8,000 per hour, in the event they are dispatched for what turns out to be a hoax. The Coast Guard does reimburse its volunteer auxiliary for fuel used when helping patrol the zones.
While the Coast Guard's efforts are intended to protect other boaters drawn to events, at least in some cases, the hosts of private events that receive safety zones are clear that the intent is not to benefit the public.
At the Groton-Long Point Yacht Club, where the Coast Guard arranged for a safety zone for a July fireworks display but did not send active-duty patrol boats, administrator Lesley De Labry said outsiders are not allowed to come in for the show, paid for by community residents.
"It's not something that we advertise at all," she said.
Associated Press writer Michael Melia contributed to this report from Hartford.