A Single Coast Guard

By Lieutenant Claudia Gelzer, U.S. Coast Guard

One was responsible for search-and-rescue and maritime law enforcement on the Upper Chesapeake Bay. The other was charged with environmental protection, port operations and commercial vessel safety within the same geographic region.

Even though the two offices regularly coordinated on issues such as marine events, pollution response, and ice operations, a firm understanding and appreciation of each unit's responsibilities by the other did not exist.

Group Baltimore located at the Coast Guard Yard, performed shore operations, while Marine Safety Office (MSO) Baltimore operated out of a downtown office and handled marine safety issues.

So despite a common Coast Guard goal, barriers existed. Ironically, the offices were duplicating efforts on several fronts. The Group office, overseeing five remote small boat stations, controlled the maintenance and operation of a large fleet of utility and patrol boats used for search-and-rescue and law enforcement. Independently, the MSO maintained and ran two of its own small boats for pollution response and safety patrols. In addition, both offices managed separate 24-hour emergency operations centers-one at the Coast Guard Yard and the other less than 15 miles away in the heart of the city.

There was more: each unit had its own office for issuing military ID cards for active, reserve, and retired Coast Guard members in the Baltimore area. For many years, there was talk that the two commands should be collocated. It was expensive to operate a unit out of downtown Baltimore's Inner Harbor. It only made sense to move onto the well established Coast Guard Yard, where in addition to the Group, there were five other Coast Guard commands. But years passed, and the two units remained across town from one another. When a newly assigned member reported aboard the MSO, the first question was always the same? "I hear we might move down to the Yard?" Which always provoked a skeptical reply. "You won't see it happen on your watch."

But in 1993, an even more innovative idea was proposed: Not only should the MSO and Group co-locate at the Yard, but the two commands should be merged to form a single Coast Guard office to serve all users of the Upper Chesapeake Bay. That is exactly what happened.

On 9 December 1995, MSO Baltimore and Group Baltimore officially merged to form Activities Baltimore, the first unit of its kind. The two commands, with their 126 military and civilian personnel, moved under one roof to form the "one-stop Coast Guard shopping center for the Upper Chesapeake Bay.

The driving force behind the formation of Activities Baltimore was the Coast Guard's National Streamlining Plan developed to address the Coast Guard's share of the deficit-reduction effort. By 1998, the same plan is scheduled to reduce service's operating expenses by $400 million and cut 4,000 billets.

The Fifth Coast Guard District, based in Portsmouth, Virginia, developed the specific concept using Activities Baltimore as the pilot. The consolidation is expected to save the Coast Guard approximately $553,000 each year. Vacating the high-rent Custom House building resulted in the bulk of the savings. (Left behind for convenience to the public was a small contingent of military and civilian workers to run the Coast Guard Regional Exam Center, which provides licensing services to mariners.) The rest of the savings come from eliminating duplicated services, specifically the combining of small boat operations, the two 24-hour operations centers and administrative efforts.

Streamlining while continuing to provide the same high level of service to the public is the challenge, according to Rear Admiral W. J. Ecker, former Fifth District Commander. The Activities concept eliminates middle-management layers; each Activities organization will be tailored specifically for the geography of the region, for the clientele, for the particular distribution of Coast Guard resources, and for political considerations, according to Rear Admiral Ecker. In one sense, they will all be a little bit different, but still have in common the successful "one-stop shopping" concept.

The formation of Activities Baltimore was by no means a simple process. Preparation for the merger lasted about two years and began with the initiatives of two forward-thinking Coast Guard leaders. In 1993, Captain Gregory Cope at MSO Baltimore and Commander Sally Brice-O'Hara at Group Baltimore, formed an alliance. The two officers, with more than 40 years of Coast Guard experience between them, sat down and compared visions for the future. Both had the forethought to see that the Coast Guard was going to have to become more efficient. They agreed that a merger was inevitable and that the integration process should begin right away, but gradually.

Early in 1994, MSO relinquished control of its small boat fleet to the Group, which agreed to maintain the boats and provide all water transport for MSO personnel requiring a platform for pollution response or vessel boardings. The two units also integrated their separate 24-hour watches and established a joint command center located at the Group. This effort resulted in immediate improvements in coordination during events that required both Group and MSO response. Finally, the Group administrative office began issuing all identification cards.

These first steps proved beneficial, but the real test came in December 1995 when the MSO and Group internal structures were dissolved, and a brand new organization designated Activities integrating the two staffs. Captain Cope became the Activities Commander and Commander Brice-O'Hara the Deputy. The new organization included three distinct divisions to handle all field operations:

  • Response
  • Prevention
  • Investigation

The Response Division became responsible for supervising and managing all Coast Guard Assets that initiate, provide, or control first responses. The Division oversees communicators, dispatchers, six small-boat stations, and two four-person pollution Field Response Teams prepositioned at Curtis Bay and Annapolis. A 24-hour Operations Center is manned by a Search-and-Rescue Mission coordinator and a Marine Safety Coordinator.

The Prevention Division has three field teams

  • Team One conducts U.S. deep-draft ships inspections, life raft inspections, and foreign vessel boardings and inspections.
  • Team Two is responsible for U.S. registered small passenger vessel inspections, and examinations of commercial fishing vessels, tugs, and towboats.
  • Team Three is responsible for waterfront facility inspections, freight container inspections, port safety and security functions, and waterway and Aids-to-Navigation management.

The Investigations Division is responsible for investigating marine casualties involving commercial vessels, oil or hazardous material spills, acts of negligence, misconduct, or incompetence by Coast Guard-licensed or documented mariners, and accidents involving Coast Guard or Coast Guard Auxiliary vessels. The division also conducts suspension and revocation proceedings against licensed and documented mariners and processes civil penalty reports for violations.

Because MSO and Group missions so often overlap, coordination during operations has proved easier under the structure of Activities Baltimore, largely because the players are now working side by side. Shore operations and marine safety personnel have begun not only to understand and appreciate each other's work, but to realize that they have more in common than they thought.

As separate units, there were times when coordination was less fluid than desired because of a lack of understanding between the units. A pollution investigator from the MSO who needed a boat from a small boat station to observe an oil spill, for example, had to negotiate numerous bureaucratic layers to gain approval. Under Activities Baltimore, these field resources are controlled by the same division. With one boss, coordination between field personnel is improved, and the unit is able to more effectively and equitably address all operational and marine safety missions.

An oil spill in Salisbury, Maryland, highlighted the benefits of better coordination. The initial spill notification was made not to the Activities, but to the nearby small boat station in Crisfield, Maryland. When word of the 2,500-gallon spill reached the station's Officer-in-Charge, he was aware that a pollution team was on the Eastern Shore that day to follow up on a sunken boat case to which Station Crisfield had originally responded. Without delay, he sent a car to the sunken boat, located the pollution team, and briefed them on the new spill. As a result, they were on scene within minutes rather than several hours-the time it would have taken a team to drive down from Baltimore.

In the recent past, in most cases the station Officer-in-Charge would not have known if marine safety personnel were working in his area. It wouldn't have occurred to either side to coordinate in that way. As a result, crucial response time might have been lost.

That same trend of improved coordination appears evident within the new Activities staff organization as well. During a recent industry day for small passenger vessel operators, the unit was able to present a "One Coast Guard" image to the public that simply did not exist before. Coast Guard Industry Day for the Upper Chesapeake Bay is an annual event sponsored by marine safety personnel specifically, vessel inspectors. The event provides an open forum for small passenger vessel operators and Coast Guard inspectors to discuss new regulations and issues of concern regarding inspections.

This year, the Chief of the Prevention Branch, who manages the inspections program, and-under the new organization-the maritime law enforcement program as well, arranged for the unit's six Coast Guard station officers-in-charge to participate during the day's presentations. They were available to discuss, in a nonconfrontational environment, the Coast Guard's boarding policies and its goal of improving compliance in the Upper Chesapeake Bay.

They also addressed concerns raised by vessel operators that random boardings during charter fishing trips seem to be overkill and can hurt business, especially when the operators have worked so hard to pass the required annual Coast Guard inspections. The outcome was a three-way discourse among the operators, vessel inspectors, and boarding officers. It produced a better understanding of what charter boats go through to get their Coast Guard inspection sticker each year, and general agreement that such vessels should be low-priority for random law enforcement boardings. It was an exchange that never would have occurred with the MSO and Group operating separately.

There have been struggles and confusion as a result of the merger-as were expected. It has been a tremendous challenge for the plank owners of Activities Baltimore to achieve the level of cross training required to be effective under the new organization. There is much to be learned and transferred from one side to the other. And there is still a long road ahead. But Captain Cope and Commander Brice-O'Hara are convinced that the efforts will clearly be worth it. They look at the merger as a tremendous opportunity for their crews to work side by side and gain a broadened view and well roundedness that they would not otherwise have achieved. Both officers have moved on to other units. Captain Charles L. Miller assumed command of Activities Baltimore with Commander Stephen W. Rochon as deputy.

What is being accomplished at Activities Baltimore is different. A new culture and ethic is evolving within the job. In the long run, the American public in the Upper Chesapeake Bay will be better served because two Coast Guards became one.


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