Coast Guard stretching resources to cope with the ‘new normal’

Late last fall, a black helicopter was flying near one of the petroleum tank farms that flank the harbor in Portland, Maine. A tugboat captain was watching the flight and radioed Coast Guard Group Portland.

Crewmembers of cutter Maple cautiously lower a buoy marking a security zone near the Alyeska Marine Terminal in Valdez, Alaska. In addition to tending aids, Maple crew patrolled the waters off Valdez and escorted tankers in and out of the terminal.
   Image Credit: Courtesy USCG

The Coast Guard phoned the Federal Aviation Administration and determined the helicopter had filed a flight plan and was associated with some sort of research project. Case closed.

But here’s the point. Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said Lt. Michael McCarthy, chief of port operation at the Marine Safety Office in Portland, it’s unlikely those calls would have been made at all.

‘It probably wouldn’t have come to light,’ McCarthy said.

For the Coast Guard and commercial marine operators, this exchange represents what some in the industry are calling the new normal.

In the weeks following Sept. 11, the Coast Guard’s operation was anything but normal, and it threatened to have a long-term impact on marine operations.

Vessels and crews that are typically busy in the fall maintaining buoys were on patrol, sometimes far from their homeports. Marcus Hanna, a 175-foot cutter that would normally be painting buoys and checking batteries on aids to navigation along the Maine coast, was keeping an eye on the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in southeast Massachusetts.

One startling estimate emerged nationally: In three months, some vessels put as many hours on their engines as they normally would in 10 years.

That unsustainable pace has been scaled back slowly, as the immediate threat of attack has eased.

‘There’s a balancing now,’ McCarthy said, ‘between trying to get the work done and having a new measure of security.’

Cutter Pompano escorts the cruise ship Seabourne Sun up the Mississippi River. Pompano was enforcing a 100-yard security zone around the cruise ship.

For commercial mariners, those measures may be translating into a greater involvement and perhaps an even closer relationship with the Coast Guard. The new 96-hour advance-notice rule for ships entering U.S. ports means more time to scrutinize crews and cargoes and more boardings. In some ports, the Coast Guard has set up ongoing meetings with pilots, terminal owners and bridge operators to assess port security. Some of this is leading to concrete actions, such as stronger fences around oil terminals. In a broader sense, though, the goal is to foster an increased sense of awareness.

‘It’s just to make them aware of what to look for,’ McCarthy said. ‘Anything suspicious. Anything that doesn’t look right, call it in. The more public and industry participation we have, the better it’s going to be.’

One thing that seems certain about the new normal is that it will change. The country’s understanding of terrorism and how to respond to threats will continue to evolve. In early October, for instance, the Coast Guard enacted a reporting rule for ships entering the United States, requiring 96-hour notice to a new, centralized reporting center in the agency, along with crew, passenger and cargo information. It replaced a 24-hour notice that had been in effect for many years.

The four-day notice gives the Coast Guard time to perform background checks, including a review with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. This helps determine which vessels should be boarded for inspection and possible questioning. Prior to the new rule, the decision to board ships and the process involved didn’t always go smoothly for pilots.

‘It was very confusing to us on the water,’ said Gene Reil of the Sandy Hook Pilots in Staten Island, N.Y.

The pilots meet vessels 15 miles offshore for the trip into New York Harbor. At first, Reil said, rules seemed to change almost daily as to which ships would be boarded. Maybe that was a good thing, he joked, from a security standpoint. ‘You didn’t know where they would be,’ he said.

In San Francisco, pilot boats these days may be carrying armed escorts with the Coast Guard’s new sea marshal program.

‘We’re glad to do it, but it’s taking a toll,’ said Kenny Levin, business manager for the San Francisco Bar Pilots.

The pilots use 97-foot station boats that can stay out for days, 11 miles offshore from the Golden Gate Bridge. Twenty-foot seas and 40-knot winds are common. These specialized vessels are designed to transfer people, but boardings get tricky in rough weather.

‘It takes quite a bit of seamanship and skill,’ Levin said.

Nationally, boardings are up since Sept. 11. The Coast Guard now boards roughly one in five ships, compared with only 5 percent previously. It is also refining the process of determining which vessels pose a risk.

In Portland, for instance, Irving tankers loaded with fuel oil make a circuit from the Canadian Maritimes through Maine and Boston. Lt. Michael McCarthy calls them frequent fliers that don’t need the same level of scrutiny as a ship docking from, say, Pakistan. ‘We’re trying to put some restraint on boardings,’ he said.

The Coast Guard will continue to escort and board ships loaded with gasoline, aviation fuel and compressed gases, however. The escorts, particularly, are actually appreciated by some operators.

‘I think it’s great to see the Coast Guard out and active,’ said Brian Fournier of Portland Tugboat & Ship Docking Co. ‘I like to see the 41-footer out there. It’s like having an escort when the president comes to town. I think it’s good for the port.’

Fournier said there seems to be greater communication between the Coast Guard and the tugs since Sept. 11, more checking in to confirm barge arrivals in the port, for example.

‘The Coast Guard is asking a little more of us,’ Fournier said. ‘But I like the increased presence, for safety’s sake.’

In San Francisco Bay, the Coast Guard and the Port of Oakland have held weekly meetings with pilots, terminal operators and other maritime interests. The goal is to make the port ‘less porous,’ Levin said.

One result is a plan to develop special identification cards for pilots and people who must pass through marine terminals to get to their vessels.

‘You’d better be able to identify yourself or you’re not going to get aboard,’ Levin said.

Fournier pointed out that the timing of the Sept. 11 attacks had one positive aspect Ñ the recreational boating season was winding down in the Northeast. That helped take at least some of the pressure off a service that was responding to increased demands.

It’s clear that the Coast Guard did cut back after Sept. 11 on parts of its mission, such as maintaining navigation aids and fisheries enforcement. However, Fournier, Reil and Levin said that they aren’t aware of lasting problems from the shift in priorities, especially in the crucial mission of aids to navigation. Like most mariners, Reil would like to see a few more buoys and lights, but he said the system in New York Harbor is being maintained.

‘Aids to navigation is the most important thing they do,’ Reil said. ‘We bet it all on that.’

In some respects, aids to navigation and beefed-up port security go hand in hand. In November, the first liquefied propane cargo since Sept. 11 was scheduled to arrive at a terminal up the Piscataqua River from Portsmouth, N.H. Two days before arrival, the Coast Guard received a report that a major buoy at Goat Island Ledge was adrift. At the time, the cutter Marcus Hanna was undergoing maintenance in Portland. But the crew was quickly recalled and the cutter embarked to repair a broken mooring and get the buoy back on station before the delivery.

‘Our aids-to-navigation mission is extremely vital to maritime commerce,’ said Lt. j.g. Tony Soliz, operations officer at Coast Guard Group Portland, ‘especially during heightened security awareness nationwide.’

Going forward, Soliz said, buoy tenders will be better able to make the transition from their basic missions to armed security details, if needed. And they’ll be asked to pay more attention when passing a marina or coastline, taking on a more active patrol mission on top of other duties.

But the Coast Guard is stressing that it will continue to need help from commercial mariners and waterfront businesses. In Portland, the Coast Guard has been meeting with oil terminal owners to review security improvements that include better fencing, lighting, video cameras and electronically controlled gates. Drawbridge operators, who have a commanding view of the waterfront, have discussed procedures for reporting anything suspicious.

‘We’ve had all these partnerships before,’ Soliz said. ‘We’re just making them stronger.’

With the threat of terrorism destined to become a constant on the waterfront, commercial mariners will play a bigger role in port security.

‘It’s a new normal,’ Soliz said, ‘for everybody.’

By Professional Mariner Staff