For Coast Guard MSOs, pace of operations has increased since 9/11 | Cruising World

For Coast Guard MSOs, pace of operations has increased since 9/11

These days, Coast Guard marine safety crews are lucky to even get a break for lunch

"You can go to lunch, but you don’t have to come back." That used to be a tongue-in-cheek marine-safety-office catchphrase. That is, of course, until September 11, 2001. These days, Coast Guard marine safety crews are lucky to even get a break for lunch. For U.S. Coast Guardsmen, our "optempo," the daily pace of operations, has increased in so many ways. From added patrols, to changes in our readiness posture, to a move into a new department, the service has adjusted to the ever-changing demands placed upon us.

The crew at Marine Safety Office Mobile (MSO), Alabama, took on an increased workload since September 11, and although they’re now somewhat acclimated to the unwavering charge of defending our nation, for members of the MSO, it’s time to brown-bag it and plan on a long day.

It’s one of those long days, and Chief Warrant Officer Stan LeCain, a marine inspector from the MSO, is aboard an 808-foot crude-oil carrier from Liberia. He and his crew of four officers and petty officers have completed a marine-safety boarding and are briefing the vessel’s skipper, Captain Ajai Tewari. LeCain, who speaks with a refined surfer’s drawl, explains to Tewari that his vessel has just undergone a Certificate-of-Compliance boarding, which examines steering systems, navigation systems, and a host of other checkpoints. LeCain fills Tewari in on his vessels deficiencies and exchanges the appropriate paperwork with the captain.

Merchant ships such as the oil tanker are still part of our nation’s crucial lifeline and essential for economic strength, but now everything that floats has become suspect in the quest for a protected homeland. The plausible idea that a terrorist could commandeer a vessel of this size in the name of terrorism is a new threat to this country’s security. The carrier, however, is given the green light, and for LeCain’s crew, another vessel waits.

The next stop on this day’s roster of inspections is a 290-foot Panamanian-flagged cargo vessel that’s been detained in the Theodore Ship Canal in Mobile for two months with 24 major deficiencies, said LeCain. As LeCain and his crew scale the vessel’s Jacob’s ladder onto the decaying vessel, the inspectors wonder aloud if they’ll even make it aboard. During the boarding, LeCain visits with the ship’s master who tries his best to convey, in broken English, that his vessel complies with the Coast Guard’s safety requirements. "That thing can barely put water out," exclaims Petty Officer 3rd Class Bryan Mitchell, a marine science technician with the MSO.

Inquisitively, LeCain turns to the skipper and asks, "What’s supplying the water to this vessel?"

As the captain leads the inspectors to the closest head, it’s determined that the water supply narrowly passes examination. As the boarding continues, LeCain and Mitchell, along with shipmate Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin Boyd, a marine science technician and law enforcement boarding officer for the MSO, survey the rest of the rust-worn ship. As they observe a feeble attempt to properly deploy the vessel’s lifeboat, LeCain performs an impromptu stress test on one of the ship’s port-side rails. Confident that he can’t kick his body weight through the rust-infested rail, LeCain returns to the hopeless deployment.

The ship’s crew continues the evolution of deploying the lifeboat until problems arise with the davit, prompting sighs from the inspectors. The vessel will stay put until the inspector’s safety requirements are met; LeCain hoped the vessel could finally leave its moorings and return to Panama. "Damn! They were so close!" says LeCain, reluctant to disallow the ship to return home.

LeCain said the MSO typically conducts two to four safety dockside boardings a week. And although that might seem like a small number, the crew is also now tasked with security boardings out at sea where the stakes are higher.

High-Risk Vessel (HRV) boardings are now commonplace on U.S. navigable waterways. Maritime safety and security are the missions on these boardings, as inspectors from the MSO team with crews from either 41-foot utility boats or 87-foot patrol boats from throughout Group Mobile’s area of responsibility, or AOR.

While the law-enforcement teams inspect the vessel for security purposes (undocumented crew, unreported cargo, or anything else suspicious), the marine safety inspectors commence their descent through engine rooms and other ship compartments, testing various safety equipment along the way.
LeCain said multiple hours are now spent on these boardings, which are incorporating elements traditionally seen by the "operations" side of the house, those Coast Guardsmen who hold law enforcement qualifications aboard small boats and cutters.

In July 2001, the MSO building was officially dedicated just inside the security checkpoint at Base Mobile. The staff shares government ground with Group Mobile, an amalgamation of operators and administrators that support the personnel and assets within the group. Various patrol boats are moored within a stones throw of the MSOs office windows, making transportation out to sea easier for inspectors --most of the time. Sometimes, inspectors must trek out to Gulfport, Mississippi or farther to hitch a ride from a Coast Guard boat.

The MSOs AOR includes five major ports: Gulfport and Pascagoula, Mississippi, Mobile, and Pensacola, Florida, and Panama City, Florida The Mobile Marine Inspection Zone and the Captain of the Port Zone encompass approximately 187,100 square miles, including 435 miles of Gulf coastline. Without a vessel traffic service to monitor ship movements, the MSO personnel attempt to track every vessel coming into port, said Lt. Maurice York, assistant operations officer at the MSO.

"We want to meet the spirit of maritime security with the personnel that we have, but it’s real tough when you’re standing 24-hour watch and getting underway with the cutters," said York. To meet these new challenges, all Coast Guard groups are now mandated to have a Joint Operations Center with a full-time marine safety watchstander. The watchstander helps to coordinate boardings, work with district and headquarters personnel, and disseminates information and intelligence up the command chain, said York.

The post-Sept. 11 Coast Guard marine-safety office is also learning how to work with some new equipment. No, not graduated cylinders or Erlenmeyer flasks. MSTs are now becoming weapons-qualified; most are now carrying gun belts equipped with the standard 9mm pistol, handcuffs, pepper spray and other assorted law enforcement gadgets. For some in the marine safety field, this change is about as foreign as some of the vessels they board.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Travis Sanders, a boatswain’s mate and boarding officer with the MSO for four years, says the change to a law enforcement mentality has taken some getting used to. "The biggest change is the operational pace; it’s pretty much quadrupled since 9/11," said Sanders. "Now, we’ve been tasked with doing HRV boardings, which is a whole new aspect, especially for an M (Marine Safety) unit. It’s been a challenge getting everybody up to speed as far as what to look for and what to do on these boardings. Now, we’re in the LE (Law Enforcement) mode--getting people qualified."

Sanders--who, judging from his muscular girth, appears to bench-press heavy slabs of Angus beef on liberty--said the maritime community has adapted to the new, rugged look of the modern-day Coast Guard safety inspector. "It doesn’t matter if you’re from China or Greece," said Sanders. "Everybody’s getting looked at differently--including us."

Sanders said that, overall, mariners are cooperative and understand the new requirements. Sanders, however, might need an adjustment period. "MSTs carrying guns still gets me. But, that’s just me," says Sanders with a smile.

Lt. Collin Fagan, chief of the foreign vessel safety and security branch, is clad in the uniform of the day for members of a Coast Guard inspection unit--blue coveralls with the words "Coast Guard" embroidered on the back. Not your typical garb for a military man, but not many members of the armed forces crawl through nauseating bilges all day.

Prior to September 11, the Port State Control unit, which used to be the name of Fagan’s department, inspected foreign vessels strictly for safety purposes; the unit ensured that a foreign vessel was safe to enter port and there were no hazards to the crew, said Fagan. "Now we’re looking at it from a security standpoint. We’re checking the background of the crew, working with the INS, and coming up with security plans to prevent ship absconders," said Fagan.

If there is a problem with a foreign crewmember’s visa, the INS will alert the Coast Guard, who will then contact the master of the vessel through the vessel’s agent. The security plan calls for a civilian guard, sometimes armed, to monitor the individual, who is then referred to as a Detainee On Board, three miles offshore. The guard will stay on the vessel until a formal security plan is finalized, describing what will happen with the individual in question once his vessel arrives in port, said Fagan.

With about 1,500 foreign vessel arrivals yearly in the Port of Mobile (645 vessels weighing more than 300 gross tons in the past year), it can be daunting to monitor ship movements throughout the world, so on October 15, 2001, the Coast Guard created the National Vessel Movement Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia, to track vessels coming into U.S. ports. The information they receive through notice of arrival requests is then filtered to the MSO through the Ship Arrival Notification System (SANS) computer program. A watchstander at the MSO will use the information in SANS to determine which HRVs need to be boarded by the Coast Guard.

"Before 9/11, we didn’t do HRV boardings," said Fagan. "Now, we can do three to five a month," he said. More than 60 HRVs were boarded by crewmembers from the MSO in the past year, said Lt. Patrick Eiland, an inspector and public affairs officer at the MSO.

According to Fagan, here’s a sample of what sails into Mobile’s AOR: freight and bulk vessels; coal and oil into the Alabama Terminal; refrigerated cargo into Pascagoula and Gulfport; major oil tankers and chemical ships into Pascagoula; and anhydrous ammonia--a clear, very pungent chemical that can be extremely dangerous if not handled properly.

With increased security measures, and the use of new inspection equipment such as Radiacs, which provide intensity and exposure information on radiation hazards, it’s still a challenge to keep our borders safe, who said a major hurdle is the lack of personnel, a concern of many at the MSO, including its skipper, Capt. Steve Hardy.

Although personnel issues are usually a hot topic when it comes to the demands of the Coast Guard, Hardy points to the fact that the service is receiving a helping hand from the maritime community and fellow law-enforcement agencies. "We’re working with a lot of different agencies now that we only had a nodding acquaintance with, but we really didn’t work with," said Hardy. "I work with the FBI all the time now. I can’t say I did that before 9/11."

Hardy said one of his intelligence officers serves as a liaison with the FBI, and might work at their offices three days a week. Hardy also praises the maritime community, saying their cooperation is vital to the success of homeland security. He mentioned the Chevron facility in Pascagoula as an example of maritime cooperation. He said they were very flexible and allowed more time for safety inspectors to transit from Mobile to the Chevron facility in Pascagoula. "I think that reflects by and large the maritime community here," said Hardy. "They understand and they want to be an active partner in making the waterways safe here," he said.

Eiland said the relationship with the community is an important aspect of his daily job. "We have a strong working relationship with the maritime community throughout our AOR, and they’re counting on us to ensure their safety," said Eiland.

"It’s been a very big push to partner with the maritime community, to let them know we need eyes on the water," added Fagan. "And they understand the importance."

There’s no doubt that the protection of our nation is the most important concern facing the Coast Guard, as well as the entire federal government. While we strive to save lives and natural resources, we must also keep homeland security in mind, as it has now become one of the Coast Guard’s predominant missions. With new rules and a tougher approach to safety and security, MSO Mobile is part of the Coast Guard’s answer to the challenge of homeland security.

For more information about MSO Mobile, you can visit their Web page: www.uscg.mil/d8/mso/mobile/.

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