Coast Guard on Guard, to Meet Terrorism Threat
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 1, 2001 America has more than 95,000 miles of coastline and hundreds of major sea and river ports, not to mention myriad inland lakes and rivers.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd class Bill Holton (left) and Seaman David Overton prepare to cast off lines at James Creek Marina in Washington, D.C. to begin a patrol of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, the national capital's major waterways. Photo by Gerry J. Gilmore.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The Million-Dollar question: Who protects all of this shoreline and waterways against possible terrorism? The Navy? Is that your final answer?
Wrong the correct response is the United States Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard is performing coastal, port and waterway security missions as part of national homeland defense efforts in the wake of the Sept. 11 assaults on the New York World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Coast Guard Headquarters spokesman Lt. Rick Wester said.
He said the 211-year-old Coast Guard is perhaps best known for its search-and-rescue and drug-interdiction missions. However, protecting the nation's more than 360 ports "is our top priority right now," Wester said, adding that about 50 of those ports are considered major facilities.
Some 90 ports and waterway areas nationwide have been designated as "security zones" where boat and ship traffic are prohibited, he said.
For example, New York City has eight such zones, Wester said, including "one around the United Nations, one around the Staten Island landfill, and one near the World Trade Center site." He added that illegal entry into a security zone can result in arrest and possible felony charges.
Coast Guard port captains, he added, have wide latitude to ensure security within their districts. Wester said this might include random boarding of commercial and private vessels to inspect ship manifests and check registration documentation.
The Coast Guard is increasing the vigilance and the number of its armed patrols along the nation's coasts and inland waterways, he said. Patrol crews, he added, include members who have arrest powers and are trained to perform law enforcement duties.
Wester and Lt. Russ Bowman from Coast Guard Activities- Baltimore escorted a group of reporters Oct. 23 aboard a 41-foot patrol boat from a marina near Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C., for a brief trip on the city's Anacostia and Potomac rivers.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Bill Holton, a 24-year-old Philadelphia native, helped cast off lines as the boat pulled away from the dock, its twin-turbocharged diesels chugging gray smoke through oval transom exhaust ports.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have made him more aware of the real importance of his job and how much the country depends on the Coast Guard, Holton said.
"It seems now that our jobs are more important, not that they weren't before," he said. Holton noted he learned how to apply police powers on the water this spring while attending Boarding Officer School in Yorktown, Va.
"We do risk assessment before we go on board (another vessel)," said Holton. He packs a government-issue Beretta automatic pistol.
He noted the Coast Guard still stops and inspects boats for proper registration and to check safety equipment such as life jackets, fire extinguishers, emergency flares and other items.
The Coast Guard has 35,000 active-duty members and about 8,000 reservists, Bowman said. More than 2,700 reservists have been called up to assist in anti-terror efforts, he noted, while 28,000 Coast Guard auxiliary members nationwide are also lending a hand.
The auxiliaries are civilian volunteers, Bowman said. They augment and backfill active duty Coast Guardsmen as the service conducts its largest port security operation since World War II, he noted.
On the boats and cutters (vessels 65 feet or longer) plying the nation's coasts and waterways, the Coast Guard relies on people like Holton and Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Curlett, 25, from Bridgeville, Del.; Seaman Edward Schappa, 20, from Milford, Conn.; and Seaman David Overton, 21, from Chesapeake, Va.
"I enjoy being out on the water," said Curlett, as he adjusted the boat's course with slight movements of a large, stainless steel wheel. The deaths resulting from the attacks on the New York World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the downed airliner in Pennsylvania are saddening, he said.
"I think the Coast Guard is doing a big part to try to make things better," Curlett remarked.
The Coast Guard is part of the Department of Transportation and is the lead government agency for U.S. maritime security, Wester explained. The Coast Guard is now working with DoD's Joint Forces Command in coordinating national homeland security missions.
Wester said the Coast Guard also routinely partners with state, local, and other federal agencies.
On the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, "the Coast Guard is working with the Navy, National Park Police, the municipal police, and Reagan National Airport security, he concluded.
For more information about the U.S. Coast Guard, see its Web site at www.uscg.mil.