Thursday, September 17, 2009

My Threatcon Column: Semper Paratus, The Coast Guard is Always Ready

I live within minutes of a potential terrorist target - the Port of Philadelphia - so I'm thankful for the diligence and dedication of our intelligence, law enforcement, military and homeland security personnel.

Philadelphia is a target due in part to the Delaware River, which is one of the world's largest freshwater ports and the second busiest in the country in terms of tonnage. The river also supports one of the world's largest petro-chemical industrial complexes, with six major oil refineries along the river.

I had the opportunity to spend some time with the U.S. Coast Guard personnel who are responsible for guarding the Delaware River and its assets. I reported to the Marine Safety Office/Group Philadelphia's offices in South Philadelphia.

Called "Station Philadelphia," the Coast Guard pier-side facility is shared with the Philadelphia Marine Police and a Philadelphia Fire Department Unit. The Coast Guard operates a number of utility boats, including two 27-foot Boston Whalers and the newly acquired 25-foot Defender Class Response boats.

I met with Lt Commander Timothy E. Meyers, who gave me a tour of the station and explained the Coast Guard's many missions. Myers, an army brat who traveled widely with this soldier-father, said the longest he ever stayed in one place was the four years he attended the Coast Guard Academy.

Meyers joined the Coast Guard because he wanted to do something for the country and because he was interested in the wide range of exciting missions the Coast Guard performs.

"The Coast Guard performs missions such as search & rescue, enforcement of laws and treaties, recreational boating safety, marine environmental protection, short range aid to navigation and last and most importantly, homeland security," Meyers told me.

Meyers said that the Coast Guard coordinates their patrols with local law enforcement agencies, not only on the water, but also in the air. The Coast Guard is a member of a port security committee that meets monthly. The committee includes a large number of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, as well as industry representatives.

"The Coast Guard is a member of the armed forces and a law enforcement agency as well," Meyers explained. "Now, with this new emphasis on homeland security, and as a new member of the Department of Homeland Security, there's a lot we can bring to the table."

Meyers said they identify incoming vessels 92-hours out from where they plan to enter port. Sea Marshals, the Coast Guard's law enforcement officers similar to Air Marshals, go out to the vessel and they'll "ride it in." A Coast Guard ship will often accompany the vessel into port.

During my visit I boarded one of the Coast Guard's 25-foot Defender Class Response Boats and we shoved off down the Delaware River. The boats have twin-Honda 225hp outboard engines and they can go more than 45 knots on the water.

That's fast.

The boats are armed with M16 MOD 8 mounts, fore and aft, and the boats also have advanced communications gear.

I rode with the crew on one of the two boats as they ventured out on patrol. I told the boat crew that I was a Navy veteran, so I knew something about boats and working on the river. After serving two years on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, I went on to serve another two years on a Navy harbor tugboat at the nuclear submarine base in Holy Loch, Scotland.

Onboard the boat were a couple of members of the Coast Guard's Maritime Security and Safety Teams (MSSTs). The young petty officers were friendly enough to a writer and a ex-Navy guy, but they were a tough interview. They didn't want to talk about threats, targets or their training. With my own Navy/Defense Department security background, I understood and respected their reluctance to talk to the press.

One of the petty officers, who asked that I not use his name, told me that he had recently reenlisted in the Coast Guard for another six years.

"I love what I'm doing and I think it is important work," the petty officer told me over the noise of the boat's engines and the splash of the water as we sped along the Delaware River.

The MSSTs are a rapid response force assigned to vital ports like Philadelphia. Meyers, who came along for the ride, said that MSSTs were formed specifically for this mission after 9/11. All of the teams have designations that begin with 911 and the first one was 91101. The Philadelphia Detachment's designation is 91110.

"The MSSTs are SWAT teams on the water," Meyers said. "The MSSTs are rapid deployable. They can be sent where needed at a moment's notice."

The two Defender Class boats performed remarkable maneuvers out past the docked and anchored freighters and cargo ships. We also sped past the mothball fleet at the now-closed Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

Based on my Navy background, I can attest to the fact that the Defender Class boats can out-run and out-maneuver nearly any craft on the water. With these boats on patrol, I doubt that any boat loaded with explosives could slam into a ship, as we saw with the attack on the USS Cole.

Perhaps the "Coasties," as the Coast Guard sailors liked to be called, were trying to make the old Navy man sea sick, as the boat made several fast, tight turns on the gray, choppy river. Thankfully, I upheld the Navy's reputation during the patrol.

"The Coast Guard is a humanitarian organization," Meyers explained when we returned to the pier. "Most people think of the Coast Guard as lifesavers and our homeland security duties are the same type of mission. It's keeping America safe, it's keeping our homeland safe."

1 comment:

  1. Thank You USCG for all that you do. It is my dream to be a USCG rescue swimmer and next summer I will go to USCG boot camp I am excited.