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