The U.S. Coast Guard is an elite response organization that has fought in every U.S. war since 1812 and is “Always ready!” as perhaps the world’s best coast guard. But, is it ready to respond to active shooter event? In 2017, there were 30 such incidents across the United States. Approximately 46 percent occurred at places of work. Between 1995 and 2016 there were 620 terror attacks in the United States—61 in 2016 alone—resulting in more than 3,300 fatalities. This type of workplace violence affects not only the safety of personnel but also the readiness of the organization to carry out its operational mission. Is the Coast Guard prepared for an active-shooter/hostile-event response (ASHER)?
Many programmatic building blocks for ASHER are in place. The Coast Guard security policy has promulgated a manual that prescribes physical security and security-force policy. There also is a program responsible for contingency preparedness and exercise policy that stipulates how plans are to be developed, maintained, validated, and improved. Unfortunately, Coast Guard physical security policy is dated and fails to address the threat of an insider as an active threat, and it does not include the term “active shooter.”
A key challenge is that the Office of Security Policy and Management is buried within the Deputy Commandant for Mission Support directorate, where it competes poorly for funding and attention with higher visibility items. And no specific office has the responsibility to advocate for security infrastructure (fences, vehicle barricades, surveillance cameras, etc.) maintenance or funding. As a result, these key items are often funded only if excess or fallout funds become available. The Office of Emergency Management and Disaster Response is focused generally outward and has not embraced ASHER planning as part of normal contingency planning.
In a 2016 interview with Federal News Radio, Rear Admiral Robert Hayes, then Assistant Commandant for Intelligence, asserted that the Coast Guard was the first federal agency to reach full operating capability in its insider-threat program. In many areas, commands are well connected to local first responders and the local Joint Terrorism Task Force, and some Coast Guard facilities are highly secure from a physical perspective. The Headquarters building, for example, is rated as level V on the Interagency Security Committee rating scale. Some facilities are protected by contract security forces and some have a dedicated Coast Guard Police Force. Most facilities have some level of access control in place.
But challenges remain, because force protection and security infrastructure for Coast Guard facilities/assets in the United States is generally a low priority.
The service’s dedicated personnel work at a fast pace under dangerous conditions, where the stakes are often high, and the pressure to succeed is intense. Coast Guard personnel are as unlikely to reach out for needed counseling or psychological assistance as members of the other military and law enforcement services. Active-shooter training is only required for civilian employees (not active-duty or contract employees). Smaller facilities lack manned gates, vehicle barriers, adequate security cameras, or full-time security teams. Most contract security personnel are neither trained nor allowed to engage an active threat except in personal self-defense. Those few facilities that have Coast Guard Police Departments typically have only one person on duty at a time, and some departments are staffed only during the day.
Many Coast Guard facilities depend almost entirely on local law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical services for any substantive response capability. Cutters have defensive capabilities, but they generally are vulnerable to waterborne and insider attack when in port. Few barriers are available to protect vessels from seaward boat attack and nonlethal response tools are lacking. Many commands do not possess full-time contingency planning or emergency management staffs. Planning for ASHER, therefore, often falls to facility managers or the command security officer who may have limited relevant experience.
But existing policies require all Coast Guard commands (that are not tenants of another facility) to have force-protection plans and conduct annual exercises. A recent search of the Contingency Preparedness System—a database that stores plans, exercises, and lessons learned—indicated only 11 commands had completed the planning requirement and 16 exercises were conducted in fiscal year 2017; six of the exercises were conducted at training centers. While there are likely more plans and exercises, it is not possible to know at which facilities, or if they complied with policy or doctrine. (Cutters have more-stringent exercise requirements depending on class, and their results are recorded in a separate database.) At a minimum, however, such plans and exercises were not done in compliance with the requirement to enter them into the database.
Upgrading Coast Guard infrastructure to ensure each facility or asset is adequately protected will be a significant challenge. Despite recent growth in the acquisition budget, little funding has been appropriated to improve shore infrastructure or security. There is no program manager to advocate for security, and, without one, it will never compete well against new ships, aircraft, classrooms, barracks, or even child development centers. Also working against funding security is the perception that the Coast Guard is safe.
It ought to be obvious that international tensions, the rise of transnational criminal networks, the spread of extremist threats, and the increase in domestic terrorism and active-shooter events combine to make the threat high enough that the service cannot afford to postpone action to harden its facilities.
At the unit level, preparation is also necessary, beyond service-wide initiatives. Assistance may be necessary from higher-echelon staffs, exercise support teams, and interagency partners. For ASHER events on most Coast Guard facilities, service members will find themselves in the unaccustomed position of victim instead of responder. An active training and awareness program can help equip each member with the information needed to react properly to an attack.
Commanders must engage with local law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical services to develop response plans that fit the unique aspects of each command to write memorandums of agreement. Bases must consider how they will protect afloat units from shoreside and seaborne attack. Every detail of a potential response must be considered to develop a plan that can be effectively executed—including access points, staging areas, alert and warning systems, shelters, recovery support assets, family reunification plans, and messaging. Draft plans should be tested through drills and exercises to validate the alert and response capabilities.
To improve the Coast Guard’s overall security, a Security Product Line should be funded to advocate for and maintain afloat and ashore security infrastructure. Its highest priority should be identifying and mitigating security infrastructure shortfalls. The Coast Guard Office of Security Policy and Management should become a direct report to the office of the Vice Commandant. This will give security the appropriate visibility and voice among proponents for operations and mission support. In addition, the metrics for ASHER plans and exercises should be reported regularly to the Coast Guard Leadership Council. This is the most important organizational step not just because plans are important but because what the Commandant cares about gets everyone’s attention.
Local Commanders need not wait for larger organizational change to act Develop a plan! Sit down with local police, fire, and rescue leaders to ensure understands their roles in response to active shooters or other hostile event. Conduct tabletop exercises to learn how each agency will respond and the actions that will be taken on the facility. Force Readiness Command’s exercise support teams can assist in exercise design, and online tools can assist in exercise design. Give local partners a tour of the facility focusing on population centers, hazardous materials, and weapons to ensure they are familiar with the facility when they have to respond. Conduct regular tests of alert and warning systems. Finally, ensure that ASHER is part of your onboarding, training, and workforce awareness programs.
It is not really a question of if the Coast Guard will face an active-shooter-type event, but when. The most important question will be asked following the event. Did we do everything we should have done to protect our people and respond to the attack? Just think how Force Protection across the Coast Guard would improve if the first question a visiting flag officer asked a Commanding Officer was “How was your last active shooter exercise?”