Calling all Boats

By Bill Parlatore

Civilians are often the first responders in maritime emergencies, as they are often closest to the stricken vessel. And that is not new. Mariners have come to the assistance of vessels in distress since man first set sail. It is the law of the sea, and all mariners must render assistance when possible if life is in jeopardy.

But that role is perhaps changing, and that presents us with interesting opportunities. The world has grown more complex, and along with that complexity is the growing need for security on all fronts to combat the ever-present threat of another terrorist attack.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is in charge of managing these threats, and its many agencies and their programs continue to evolve to better align with ever-changing situations. But should we discount the possibility of civilian involvement?

America's Waterway Watch

One initiative created by the Coast Guard, operating as it does within the larger DHS, is America's Waterway Watch (AWW), a nationwide program supported by the active-duty Coast Guard and its reserve and auxiliary units. It is similar in some ways to local Neighborhood Watch programs across the country. The maritime watch effort is all about making the public more vigilant and to heighten situational awareness around the waterways of America. By enlisting the aid of those who live, work, and play on or around the 95,000 miles of our country's shoreline, it is hoped that threats may be identified and thereby foiled. In theory it is a grand idea, having all of our citizens on the lookout for suspicious behavior on and around the water. Much like the Coast Watch effort during World War II, where citizen-volunteers patrolled the coast for U-boats, America's Waterway Watch is broader in that it asks everyone to monitor for suspicious behavior and potential threats.

What is suspicious behavior? A small boat lurking around a bridge, with video cameras in sight instead of fishing gear or men on shore taking pictures of a refinery or Navy base are examples of what this program attempts to locate. A boat rental operator, approached by men who are not dressed for boating and appear somewhat agitated, might notice this behavior as unusual compared to his normal clientele. Local watermen working their traps and pots might see a boat on the water that just doesn't feel right. A gut feeling that something isn't as it should be is not a superstition, but a useful tool. And that is the idea behind America's Waterway Watch.

The Coast Guard Reserve has been assigned to convince other government agencies and businesses to join the program, while the Coast Guard Auxiliary is responsible for building AWW awareness in the recreational boating community.

The AWW program is part of a much broader initiative, a national effort to achieve Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). The current administration has decided this country and its global maritime partners need to become much more effective at knowing about everything in the maritime domain. This involves everyone in that domain, from pilots, merchant seamen, longshoremen, boaters—everyone. With approximately 90 percent of U.S. commerce moving by sea, to think national security is also to think globally. MDA focuses on anything that might affect our nation's security, economy, or environment.

The plan is moving ahead (at varying speeds) to get systems in place to understand everything that is happening in the maritime domain: what is being moved on the water from where, by whom, and for what purpose. It is a monumental task, indeed, and will cross all segments of the federal government and state and local agencies, and will include our allies around the world.

But this country also needs an energized private sector, which is an important part of a nation that can withstand an attack or natural disaster. The utter failure of FEMA and most other government agencies in the Katrina catastrophe, with the outstanding exception of the U.S. Coast Guard, is ample proof of that need.

One element of MDA and the point of AWW is anomaly detection. In the case of the waterway watch, when watermen, fishermen, workboat crews, and recreational boaters—people who understand what is normal in their environment—see something that is out of place, or wrong, it is vital that they realize their role and do something about it.

The Word Never Got Out

But this approach so far has been seriously flawed. I have been in the recreational marine industry for over a dozen years, and I can confidently state that few people in recreational boating know anything about AWW, its purpose, or their individual role in preventing a terrorist attack. Experienced boat owners, many of whom would jump at the chance to assist in some meaningful way, have no connection with the program whatsoever. At our publication, we received one press release about AWW several years ago, and nothing since. I attend all of the major U.S. boat shows, and if the AWW program is present at all, it is certainly lost among the crowded docks and booths.

I suspect America's Waterway Watch is another example of a good plan that was implemented without connection. And if it misses a target audience as large as the millions of recreational boaters in this country, what value do we place on the civilian role in our national security?

There has been much talk recently about building a resilient nation, one that can survive and recover quickly from an attack or other disaster. With so much focus on prevention, isn't it time to admit that no government or agency can completely prevent a terrorist attack any more than it can prevent a natural disaster? So it seems vital to develop the critical infrastructure necessary to ensure that financial, military, transportation, civil, and other services remain operational if (or when) the unthinkable happens. And the civilian role could be crucial.

I take that personally. One May evening I was having dinner with friends at the Annapolis Yacht Club in Maryland. It was after dusk, and our view of the waterfront from the third floor of the club was enchanting. My view out the window sharpened when I noticed something odd in the water, and it was moving. The Chesapeake Bay does not have whales or large animals that swim on the surface at night, and I found that most curious. What I could see was about six to eight feet long, straight and dark in the reflection from lights along the waterfront.

I asked my friends if they could see it as well. As the four of us turned to stare out the window, the object moved into the light cast from a restaurant across Spa Creek from the club. It was clearly a manmade object, a mini submarine perhaps, or maybe a SEAL delivery vehicle of some kind. But why was it here, running inside a harbor in stealth mode, clearly a hazard to other vessels in the creek? No navigation or steaming lights, no periscope, nothing but a long black shape running an inch or so above the surface. Was it associated with the Naval Academy? Or was it something else, perhaps a remotely controlled smart bomb, a surveillance drone, or a self-propelled semi-submersible (don't miss " A New Underwater Threat " beginning on page 32) scoping out the downtown waterfront area? It struck me that among all of the people in Annapolis at that moment, we were probably the only people aware of this silent craft, and I wondered what we should do about it. We never did find out what it was, nor did we ever report it.

I now realize that I am precisely the person the America's Waterway Watch is all about. I had seen something unusual and it was clearly suspicious. Unfortunately, I had not connected with the program or its details, so it bothered me that I had seen something that may or may not have been important and had done nothing about it.

Is There Another Role?

Besides increasing situational awareness for anomaly detection among those in our waterway communities, is there more that can be done to engage civilians in meaningful ways? The AWW program specifically states that no one should get involved beyond notifying authorities. But does it really need to stop there?

I suggest perhaps two roles for civilian mariners with regard to our national security. First, to help detect behavior that is suspicious, and if the AWW is better promoted around the country, perhaps in cooperation with marine industry associations, that might be an effective tool for homeland security.

But the second role is to be a resource for first-responders. The Coast Guard Auxiliary is heavily involved in the training and safety of boaters, but its numbers are relatively few, and there may be a much bigger opportunity than what those civilian volunteers can offer.

A major emergency will likely be different from any other, and any plans made for such events will no doubt require constant adjustment because of the vast number of possible scenarios. As a result, first responders and their agencies will have to make on-the-spot decisions, and actions will be somewhat spontaneous. That is why training is so important.

One of the big lessons of the November 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill in San Francisco was the lack of contingency planning for effective use of civilian volunteers. The Report on Initial Response Phase in the Incident Specific Preparedness Review, published 11 January 2008, said that future National Response Team planning should include guidelines for Area Contingency Plan (ACP) communities to develop convergent volunteer sections in local ACPs.

In the case of the San Francisco plan, that might have included several volunteer wildlife groups willing and able to render assistance in oil-spill containment and wildlife rescue. Integrating the training of experienced organizations and interested volunteers into a local ACP, or regional and even national contingency plans, seems to be a valuable use of resources made available at the local level.

In addition, the National Disaster Medical System supports medical response capability in the event of a national disaster, terrorist attack, or other major event. Experienced professional and para-professional civilian volunteers can join medical, veterinary, mortuary, pharmacy, and nurse response teams to temporarily provide medical and other care services during and after a disaster.

In a maritime domain emergency, civilian participation is a subject worth consideration. Whether it is an academic question or a policy question is up to the Coast Guard. Emergency plans and mass evacuation procedures should include volunteer groups, including recommendations on how best to use and manage them. The scope of their duties would need to be determined, and proper training might require more resources than are available, given the Coast Guard's many responsibilities.

Stuck on Channel 16

Recent technology advances add a new twist to the possibility of engaging civilians in this manner. In 1992, the Coast Guard petitioned the FCC to require Digital Selective Calling (DSC) in all VHF radios sold in this country. The FCC adopted DSC and it became a requirement for all VHF radios built after June 1999.

Digital Selective Calling adds significant value to traditional VHF communications. By entering a unique maritime mobile service identity (MMSI) number that is assigned to a DSC radio station, a radio operator can use a VHF radio more like a telephone and contact other radio stations using other DSC-capable radios nine-digit MMSI number.

In an emergency, a distress button on the radio can be activated that sends out an automatic distress call to all DSC-capable radios and the Coast Guard, with GPS location information if the radio is properly installed. This service is used by the Coast Guard's Rescue 21 system, the advanced command and communications system that will greatly improve its capability for search and rescue.

Unfortunately, the Coast Guard has been slow in getting Rescue 21 fully operational. While coverage areas are increasing at the rate of one sector per month, at present just over 16,000 miles of coastline are within the Rescue 21 coverage area, and the program is several years behind schedule. When it is fully implemented in the next several years, most U.S. coastal waters will be covered, including those off the shores of Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Great Lakes, and much of Alaska.

But not unlike AWW, this service, a concept offering widespread utility, is not going to be nearly as effective if only commercial operators use it. The majority of the 70 million recreational boaters in this country know nothing about DSC, how it works, or why.

The consumer organization BoatUS recently announced it had assigned its 50,000th MMSI number, marking a milestone of sorts. To make this number real, however, I conducted a survey of the professionals I know in the pleasure boat industry who own boats, as well as all of the experienced yachtsmen and boat owners in my world. regarding their experience with DSC. The results were beyond disappointing. Half of those who owned DSC-capable radios did obtain an MMSI number but did not know what it was for or what to do with it. The rest either had purchased a DSC-capable radio but knew nothing about the MMSI number, or had older, non-DSC radios. Only one person out of 60 people had actually made a DSC call just to see how it worked.

It seems our nation is stuck on Channel 16.

The sad truth here is that, in addition to DSC's distress capability, one can use a DSC-capable radio to contact other vessels with DSC-capable radios. In terms of contingency planning, the Coast Guard could preassemble groups of MMSI numbers with a "group call" function that could contact available volunteers when an emergency develops.

Imagine a volunteer group identified within a digital selective calling network that meet some criteria of training or experience or vessel capability. The group might also include retired Coast Guard, Navy, or others with military or other relevant service. The Coast Guard could choose to contact these volunteers if they were on the water and available in a support capacity.

Whether it is technology, such as DSC VHF service on the water, or large collections of cell phone numbers from designated people who can be quickly mobilized using text messaging, it seems to be an opportunity to think about before it becomes another afterthought in a post-disaster response report.

Every Last Citizen

The many efforts to make a safer homeland, one that is truly secure and vigilant, depend on everyone. The idea of a well-regulated civilian militia was the basis for our Second Amendment. We have volunteer fire departments across the country, and amateur radio operators quickly overcome communications challenges in natural disasters. A well-educated public, with widely publicized programs to allow motivated citizens to help in the grand scheme of homeland security, is perhaps the greatest resource we have in this country.

And there is surely no better way to thwart the terrorist threat than to build a country of vigilant citizens, armed with the right tools to reach maritime domain awareness. Without them, we cannot hope to win.

Mr. Parlatore is founder and editor-at-large of PassageMaker, The Trawler & Ocean Motorboat Magazine . He is also on the board of directors of the American Boat and Yacht Council, which sets the standards for boat building and works closely with the U.S. Coast Guard on safety matters.

Mr. Parlatore is founder and editor-at-large of PassageMaker, The Trawler & Ocean Motorboat Magazine. He is also on the board of directors of the American Boat and Yacht Council, which sets the standards for boat building and works closely with the U.S. Coast Guard on safety matters.

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