By Scott Graves

Triplicate staff writer

The United States Coast Guard cutter Dorado was several miles off the coast of Crescent City one recent Thursday when the fire alarm went off.

The 10-man crew reacted instantly, each member running off to his expected post.

One officer, Seaman Mitchell Flores, donned his firefighting suit, grabbed a hose and descending into the belly of the 87-foot steel vessel.

His job: battle a raging fire in the engine room.

Prepared for the worst, Flores opened the door and found... nothing.

It was just a drill, one of several the Dorados crew perform almost 365 days a year.

A week later, the three-man crew of a Coast Guard rescue helicopter cruised the Del Norte County coastline.

They were on a routine training flight when they received a real distress call of a fisherman having a heart attack.

It can all change in a blink of the eye, said helicopter mechanic Isaac Saenz. It goes from calm to chaos just like that.

On the sea and in the air, the Coast Guard trains constantly for real life emergencies. And with winter coming, the training becomes even more important.

Were all cross-trained and ready to respond to just about anything, said Executive Petty Officer Ernie Pratt.

The first thing is to make sure the Dorados crew is ready to take care of any emergencies on board such as fires or flooding, Pratt said.

Eighty percent of our training is preventive maintenance, he said. We have to be ready to respond to anything at any time.

Early this year, that wasnt the case. Training events had been cut to a minimum as high gas prices this summer eroded the Coast Guards budget.

Congress recently approved extra money, allowing the Coast Guard to increase its training.

While the Dorado is stationed most of the year in Crescent City, the crew gets its orders from Coast Guard headquarters in Eureka.

The guards three helicopters are stationed in Eureka, but can reach Crescent City in about 10 minutes.

Both the Dorado and the helicopters patrol an area from the California/Oregon border to a few miles south of Point Arena. The Dorado can travel as far as 200 miles offshore, while the helicopters can fly about 150 miles offshore before returning.

Powered by a pair of monster turbocharged diesel engines and the latest technology, the Dorado can battle 25-foot waves and 80-knot winds. Its the Coast Guards sixth and most advanced patrol boat in the nation.

It has a unique stern ramp which allows the launch and recovery of a rigid hull inflatable boat in extremely rough conditions. In the past, inflatable boats had to be hoisted in and out of the water.

The two Volkswagen-sized, 1,400-horsepower diesel engines can push the Dorado to a speed of 26 knots (about 30 mph), allowing it to respond quickly to all types of nautical and law enforcement emergencies.

Were the police of the sea, said Justin Kimura, commanding officer of the Dorado. Our main job is law enforcement.

That means boarding commercial and recreational boats regularly to check if the vessels meet safety requirements and the crews are not violating fishing limits.

The Dorado also participates in search and rescue efforts and responds to environmental concerns, such as oil spills.

In the air, the Coast Guards three turbo helicopters are ready to respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

We can be airborne within 30 minutes of getting a call 10 or 15 minutes during the day, said Pilot Dave Wierenga.

The helicopter can fly at a maximum of 10,000 feet, but typically cruises at 3,500 feet. It usual flies at 120 knots (about 140 mph), and can burn up to 600 pounds of fuel an hour.

The helicopter crew trains daily, practicing different landings in various conditions. They also work with private boats to practice hoisting people in rescue baskets.

The helicopter responds mostly to search and rescue missions on both sea and land. Its not uncommon to pick up a stranded boater one day, an injured hiker or a car accident victim the next.

Saving a human life is what its all about, Wierenga said.