YOUNGSTOWN — It stretches along 570 miles of largely international shoreline from Vermillion, Ohio, a second ring suburb of Cleveland to Messina, NY, near the entrance from the Atlantic Ocean into the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Included in its waterways are the Finger Lakes and the Erie Canal, from Buffalo to Little Falls, with the Niagara and Cuyahoga rivers thrown in for good measure.

There are 15 free-standing stations or units, manned by 351 active duty personnel, 100 reservists and about 800 volunteer auxiliary members.

If Coast Guard Sector Buffalo sounds like a lot to handle, it's really just another day at the office for Capt. Lexia Littlejohn. 

The newly minted sector commander here embraces what her business card describes as "Protecting the Eastern Great Lakes."

"We keep the Great Lakes safe," Littlejohn says with a smile and a nod. "We are in the top five sectors, nationwide, in search and rescue missions and we do it, mostly, in a short summer (boating) season."

A 1997 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy, Littlejohn began her career as a Deck Watch Officer and Boarding Team member on the cutter "Rush" in the Bering Sea. Not exactly a warm weather destination.

From there she moved through the Coast Guard command, spending time at the National Command Center, as well as Sector San Francisco. She also received a Masters degree in Engineering from Stanford University during her time in the Bay area.

She arrived here in late June after serving as the deputy commander of Coast Guard Sector Key West. There she led a multi-agency team of 400 first responders and more than 40 response vehicles in conducting 108 rescues as well as marine salvage operations in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

"I've never worked in a sector like the Great Lakes, fresh water versus salt water," Littlejohn said. "In Key West we had a lot of focus on (drug) interdiction."

In her new sector, Littlejohn has already given thought to the potential for ice rescues as opposed to stopping cartel shipments. With a pair of ice breaking tugs stationed in Cleveland and an icebreaker, the Mackinaw, in Cheboygan, Michigan, she says, "We have the capabilities (to handle ice on the water), if we need it."

Littlejohn says when she graduated from the academy, she wasn't positive the Coast Guard would be her career.

"I was gonna spend five years (the minimum requirement after the academy) and then out," she said with a laugh. "But then I thought, this is pretty cool. I think I'm gonna stick around. Each experience I've had (in the Coast Guard) has been one that has changed me in different ways."

And, as a native New Yorker, Littlejohn says her Buffalo sector appointment she is "loving it here" and embracing the sector's challenges.

"It's always the Coast Guard and the mission that brings me back," she said. 

The search and rescue numbers here have certainly caught her attention. So far, in 2019, 93 people have lost their lives in the sector in boating or swimming accidents.

"That's 12 more than in all of 2018," Littlejohn said. "That's a big deal for us."

So throughout the summer season, both active duty and auxiliary Coast Guard members have blitzed the sector's waterways, engaging boaters with what they believe is life-saving information.

"You should never be on a boat without a life jacket," Littlejohn said. "A life jacket is the number one thing that can increase your chance for survival if you end up in the water. We've taught over 800 boaters how to be safe."

With search and rescue and safety education working hand in hand, Littlejohn says her command also pays close attention to defending the Great Lakes from pollution. It's a mission she has vast and unique experience in, having spend much of her San Francisco tour of duty is designing and planning spill response.

"We have teams that will go out and monitor spills," Littlejohn said. "It happens quite frequently, you'd be surprised."

She also noted that the operators of vessels are responsible for cleaning up their spills and "making the environment safe."

"The lakes need to be safe, secure and free of pollution," Littlejohn said 

In a tour of the Coast Guard station in Youngstown, Littlejohn noted the value of the 29- and 45-foot search and rescue vessels details there. The 45-footer, in particular, is a jet-propelled vessel, capable of reaching speeds of up to 45 knots, comparable to more than 50 miles per hour.

"It is the Cadillac of the fleet," Chief Jared Shear, the officer-in-charge of the Youngstown station, said. "It gives us the highest speed, the best endurance in high seas."

And not that you're likely to see it here, but there is a mount on the bow capable of holding some high-capacity firepower.

There is an enforcement component to Sector Buffalo's work. As Littlejohn notes, there are vessels on the local waterways that are moving cargos of drugs and people. 

The Coast Guard here partners with Canada's Royal Canadian Mounted Police for a program known as Ship Rider which allows both agencies to operate in each other's waters to aid in fighting drug and alien smuggling.

"We can not do what we do without our partners," Littlejohn said.

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