225 years of Service to Nation: Ports, waterways and coastal security

Aug. 4, 2015 marks the 225th birthday of the United States Coast Guard. Throughout the year, we’ll be unveiling a series of blog posts and other events that mark this important milestone. Stay tuned to learn more about the Coast Guard’s 225 years of Service to Nation and join the celebration! Today, we share the history of the Coast Guard’s ports, waterways and coastal security mission.

Written by Christopher Havern

Members of Maritime Safety and Security Team (MSST) Boston conduct security sweeps of the New York Harbor, Sept. 11, 2014. MSST Boston deployed to Staten Island, N.Y., to assist MSST New York with providing a heightened security presence during the 13th anniversary of Sept. 11. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Frank J. Iannazzo-Simmons.

Members of Maritime Safety and Security Team (MSST) Boston conduct security sweeps of the New York Harbor, Sept. 11, 2014. MSST Boston deployed to Staten Island, N.Y., to assist MSST New York with providing a heightened security presence during the 13th anniversary of Sept. 11. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Frank J. Iannazzo-Simmons.

 

The genesis of the Coast Guard’s ports, waterways and coastal security, or PWCS, mission dates back to 1888 when its predecessor agency, the Revenue Cutter Service, was tasked with the movement and anchorage of vessels in New York. That mandate subsequently grew to include all U.S. territorial waters and by 1915, when the modern-day Coast Guard was formed, the service was “to establish anchorage grounds for vessels in all harbors, rivers, bays and other navigable waters of the United States …”

This authority increased with the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917. Shortly after the declaration of war, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Espionage Act on June 15, 1917. The act charged the Coast Guard with protecting merchant shipping from sabotage and empowered the service to safeguard waterfront property, supervise vessel movements, establish anchorages and restricted areas and granted the authority to control and remove people aboard ships. The importance of this mission was soon demonstrated just a few months later in Canada.

On Dec. 6, 1917, two ships collided in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, producing one of the worst tragedies in maritime history. One of the ships was a freighter carrying 5,000 tons of TNT bound for the war in Europe. After the collision the munitions ship caught fire and the resulting explosion devastated the Halifax waterfront and leveled the suburb of Richmond. Over 1,600 were killed and over 9,000 were injured.

Not wanting to see this happen in the United States, the Coast Guard, now serving under U.S. Navy command, continued to enforce the anchorage regulations and vessel movements. The tremendous volume of munitions shipments required increased personnel to oversee this activity. The term “captain of the port,” or COPT, was first used in New York where Capt. Godfrey L. Carden, commander of the Coast Guard’s New York Division, was named COTP. The majority of the nation’s munitions shipments passed through New York and Carden was charged with supervising their safe loading. For a period of 1 1/2 years, more than 1,600 vessels, carrying more than 345-million tons of explosives sailed from this port.

During World War I, Capt. Godfrey L. Carden, commander of the Coast Guard's New York Division, was named 'captain of the port' in that harbor, marking the first Coast Guard Captain of the Port, a title still used today. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

During World War I, Capt. Godfrey L. Carden, commander of the Coast Guard’s New York Division, was named ‘captain of the port’ in that harbor, marking the first Coast Guard Captain of the Port, a title still used today. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

 

In 1918 alone, Carden’s division constituted over 1,400 personnel and was the largest single command in the Coast Guard.

During Carden’s tenure, COTP duties were performed without serious mishap. The most dangerous moment occurred at a rail yard in Morgan, New Jersey, when munitions began exploding and fire spread to other ammunition storage buildings. Although Carden had no responsibility for this facility, a Coast Guard detachment from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, reached the scene first to prevent a Halifax-like disaster as other units arrived from New York. Following the New York example, similar posts were established in other U.S. ports.

After World War I, the COTPs were retained to regulate peacetime port activities. In the 20 years following the war the Coast Guard’s responsibilities concerning anchorage regulations and vessel movements grew.

With the entry of the U.S. into the Second World War in 1941, those missions increased again. During the war, again serving under U.S. Navy command, the port security mission broadened through various laws and agreements. Wartime responsibilities now included:

  • Control of anchorage and movement of all vessels in port;
  •  Intelligence gathering and issuance of identification cards and the supervision of access to vessels and waterfront facilities;
  • Fire-prevention measures including inspections, recommendations and enforcement;
  • Firefighting activities, including use of fireboats, trailer pumps and other extinguishing agents;
  • Supervision of the loading and stowage of explosives and military ammunition;
  • Boarding and examination of vessels in port;
  • Sealing of vessels’ radios;
  • Licensing of vessels for movement in local waters and for departure;
  • Guarding of important facilities;
  • Enforcement of all regulations governing vessels and waterfront security;
  • Maintenance of water patrols; and
  • General enforcement of federal laws on navigable waters and other miscellaneous duties.

 

The Coast Guard had to reconcile these tasks with few resources. Through effort and trial and error, the port-security program became comprehensive and effective. In the end, U.S. logistical centers remained secure from sabotage, confusion and mishaps and though often overlooked, it was important in the sustaining the forces that won the Allied victory in World War II.

In the years after World War II, though the Coast Guard continued to ensure the safe operations of the ports and the safe loading of ammunition and other hazardous cargoes, especially during the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf wars, PWCS did not have the same level of emphasis as other missions like drug interdiction and marine environmental protection.

Tosca and her Maritime Security Response Team canine officer sweep the deck of Mississippi Canyon Block 582, Medusa Platform during a joint exercise May 21, 2014. The MSRT, Murphy Oil Corporation, and DoD worked together to train to respond to threats aboard the production facility. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Robert Nash.

Tosca and her Maritime Security Response Team canine officer sweep the deck of Mississippi Canyon Block 582, Medusa Platform during a joint exercise May 21, 2014. The MSRT, Murphy Oil Corporation, and DoD worked together to train to respond to threats aboard the production facility. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Robert Nash.

That all changed on Sept. 11, 2001.

In the wake of al-Qaeda’s attacks, the federal government and the public had grave concerns regarding America’s infrastructure vulnerabilities. As a result the Coast Guard’s security mission again saw an increased level of emphasis. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 divided the Coast Guard’s eleven statutory missions between homeland security and non-homeland security. Reflecting the Coast Guard’s historical role in securing our nation, the act delineated PWCS as the first homeland security mission and the Commandant of the Coast Guard designated PWCS as the service’s primary focus alongside search and rescue.

In 2003, along with becoming part of the new Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard addressed its PWCS responsibilities and functions by initiating Operation Neptune Shield, or ONS. The Coast Guard supplemented ONS with tactical and strategic documents. The Coast Guard’s systematic, maritime governance model for PWCS employs a triad consisting of domain awareness, maritime security regimes and maritime security and response operations carried out in a unified effort by international, governmental and private stakeholders.

In 2010, ONS was further developed into what is now known as the Maritime Security Response Operations, or MSRO, program. This program prescribes Coast Guard national policy and doctrine for the execution of maritime security and response operations in support of the ports, waterways and coastal security mission.

Current developments within this program include a Coast Guard-wide rollout of Risk-Based MSRO, or RBMSRO. This program and tool enables sector commanders throughout the Coast Guard to plan these maritime security and response activities and focus on risk reduction performance rather than activities based performance.

The tool uses existing resources, workload demand and unique sector risk weights to optimize operational efficiencies.

RBMSRO gives the Coast Guard a flexible decision making process, applied through risk-based protocols, that is essential to future port-security operations.

As technology and operations continue to evolve, the Coast Guard’s port, waterways and coastal security mission will follow suit and adapt as necessary. But one thing remains constant: Just as it has from the inception of the mission in 1888, the Coast Guard continues to stand ready to secure the nation’s ports, waterways and coasts.

Now that you’ve learned all about the Coast Guard’s ports, waterways and coastal security mission from inception to present day, stick around to learn about the remaining Coast Guard missions in the coming weeks!

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