Whos On Board

By John McCormick  |  Posted 2003-09-09 Print this article Print


Whos On Board?

In addition to Customs, the Coast Guard has been given added responsibilities for border security with the advent of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Boyle confers often with Commander Greg Phillips, whos been charged with securing waterways and docks around the Port of Oakland. Commander Phillips office is nearby, on a 68-acre island in the Oakland Estuary. The two men take part in various monthly port-security conferences, and talk separately about security breaches, such as the curious bicyclist found circling the grounds.

But this also poses a problem. There is no automatic alert system for Boyle to notify the Coast Guard of a potential threat. If the biker had been a terrorist instead of a tourist, it would have been close to impossible to quickly muster all the port, law enforcement, and federal agencies responsible for defusing a bomb, gun, chemical, biological or nuclear threat.

The alert system? Phone, e-mail and fax.

But calling by phone is hit or miss. Other alternatives arent much better. "We can send out a fax, but does [the person] sitting at the fax know to look for something? We can e-mail something, but does that go into somebodys pager? Does someone know to go back and look at an e-mail? What are we doing with folks who are on vacation or not available? How do we know the next person down is getting key information?" Phillips asks. "Getting information out is not as difficult as making sure it gets in the right hands."

As a result, the San Francisco Marine Exchange, a nonprofit group that provides shippers with forecasting and tracking information, asked the TSA for a grant to bolster Coast Guard communication systems so that warnings of threats could be exchanged quickly. The grant was turned down.

If the Coast Guard raises its estimate of the maritime security threat level, outlying ports might not hear about it for 24 hours, says the exchanges deputy executive director, Jeff McCarthy. A bigger problem for Boyle and his counterparts is just being able to effectively collect, record, and analyze the bits and pieces of information that the Coast Guard picks up on during patrols. Boyle needs telltale tidbits such as a watercraft hanging at an entrance to the port or a small boat circling the docks.

Getting a sense of whats going on in the waters around the nations ports is tougher than seeing beyond a ships bow in a typhoon, according to Phillips and other Coast Guard officials.

That proved painfully obvious when the Coast Guard got word one recent early morning that a man in a rubber raft landed at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. A patrol was sent out.

"But they couldnt find the person," says Boyle, "couldnt find the boat."

Later that morning, according to accounts of the incident, the man turned himself in to local authorities. He said he was just out on the bay fishing.

Part of the reason the Coast Guard couldnt find the rafter is its crews information-gathering tools are still binoculars, a map and radar. Yet, radar, as Americans learned from the 2000 suicide-boat attack on the USS Cole, cannot detect small objects with low profiles traveling close to a ship.

"We are blind as to whats going on in maritime," Commander Dave Vaughn of the Coast Guards Office of Command and Control told a TSA port security conference audience last month in Charleston, S.C.

Next page: "Cop on the beat" instincts for the Coast Guard and a new surveillance system?


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