By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Always ready to rescue

Marcus Larson/News-RegisterCoast Guard LTJG Ian McPhillips speaks to the McMinnville Band of Brothers gathering for veterans. Before he joined the service and became a rescue swimmer, he was on the Mac High swim team.

“What’s really nice about the Coast Guard is you’re helping your own community,” said Lieutenant Junior Grade Ian McPhillips, a McMinnville native who spent weeks helping with the effort.

McPhillips, once a member of the championship Grizzlies swim team, joined the Coast Guard not long after graduating from McMinnville High School in 2000. He spent time on a buoy tender in Alaska before becoming a rescue swimmer, dropping out of a helicopter to take part in hundreds of rescues on land and water.

Now holding the rank of lieutenant junior grade, he serves as assistant chief of the Waterways Management Branch at the Portland Coast Guard base. He oversees navigation on the coast, the Willamette and Columbia rivers, and other rivers as far east as the Snake.

He also conducts safety inspections of waterside businesses and construction zones; regulates any event that takes place on or over the water, such as Rose Festival activities and fireworks shows; and deals with hazardous situations, such as spills, derelict vessels and obstacles that could inhibit navigation.

Always fond of swimming, he was a child visiting Pacific City when he first became aware of the Coast Guard. “We saw a hang glider collide with Haystack Rock, and the Coast Guard guys came out to rescue him,” he recalled.

He remembered that incident as he participated in swimming at Mac High. He also earned his lifesaving certification and worked as a life guard at the McMinnville Aquatic Center.

While spending summers working in the commercial fishing industry in Alaska, he watched Coast Guard boats and helicopters at work. He realized then what he knows even better now: “You’re helping your own community.”

McPhillips’ his first tour of duty was on the 180-foot Firebush, a World War II ship that had been converted into a buoy tender. It’s crew kept navigational aids working from the Aleutian Islands to Prince William Sound.

After the Firebush was decommissioned and transferred to the Nigerian Navy, McPhillips trained as a rescue swimmer. But first, he had to undergo intensive training at Air Station Kodiak to get into shape.

“I spent three months running up mountains and doing push-ups and sit-ups,” he said.

Not that he’d been a slacker on the buoy tender. It’s just that rescue swimmers neet to be in tip-top condition.

The job is incredibly demanding physically. The swimmer needs to be tough for both his own safety and that of people being rescued from the ocean, the surf, a flood, a remote accident site or the side of a cliff.

“It’s a really cool job,” he said. “It’s waiting for calls mixed with short spurts of very strenuous activity. I loved it, but it was tough on the body.”

He was one of eight candidates in his class at the four-month rescue swimmer training, technically called Aviation Survival Technician School. Only two made it through.

McPhillips is proud to say another former Mac High swim team member, Nathan Newberg, is also a graduate of the tough rescue swimmer program.

McPhillips was assigned to Air Station New Orleans in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina hit in late August 2005. “It was chaotic,” he said, recalling how rescuers rushed to help people in the hurricane-ravaged, then flooded, city.

A month later, Hurricane Rita devastated the area. Once again, McPhillips was dropping out of a helicopter to rescue stranded citizens.

“Rita was scarier,”  he said. “We were out working in the hurricane.”

After New Orleans, McPhillips was assigned to Air Station Humboldt on the Northern California Coast. During his four years there, he participated in rescues involving surfers, hikers stranded after falling on steep slopes and car accidents, often working closely with other agencies, such as local fire departments.

He applied for officer candidate school and was accepted after two years — a relatively short time. He was one of only a few in his class without a master’s degree, holding a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Oregon University, but having plenty of experience.

He spent 17 weeks at the Coast Guard’s officer candidate school, which he called, “our equivalent to West Point.” When it came time to choose a career path, he picked prevention, which led to his current posting in Portland.

His job isn’t as glamorous as rescue swimming, perhaps, but it’s of critical importance.

“Marine safety is about prevention. It’s about public safety and preventing the response side from being overwhelmed,” he said.

McPhillips said he’s glad to be in Portland. It’s a desirable station, not to mention close to his hometown, he said.

He and his wife and daughters, 4 and 2, visit McMinnville from time to time to visit friends and swim in the Yamhill River. And they make it a point of coming to town in early July for Turkey Rama.

Starla Pointer is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or

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