Whole of government, unity of effort, collaboration, and coordination—these are essential elements of a successful governance or business framework. In today’s ever-growing marine transportation system (MTS), which contributes to 90 percent of all of U.S. trade and more than one-quarter of the U.S. GDP, harmonized interagency partnerships are the bedrock of sustainable, resilient, and effective ports.
As ports continue to grow and investments in infrastructure and supply chain capability increase, the world will rely on the MTS more than ever. The recent grounding of the container ship Ever Given in the Suez Canal shined a spotlight on the international maritime supply chain, with early estimates of $6 billion to $10 billion per week in global trade impacts. The coalitions of willing and able port partners, agencies, and first responders will be critical to the nation’s continued prosperity and international standing. In the greater Port of Virginia, the partnership between the U.S. Coast Guard and the Maritime Incident Response Team (MIRT) highlights a model of regional success that is critical to port resilience and enduring trust for decades to come.
The Greater Port of Virginia
At the confluence of the lower Chesapeake Bay, the York, James, and Elizabeth Rivers, and the gateway to the Atlantic between Cape Henry and Cape Charles, the Hampton Roads region in Virginia is known for its natural deep water, unrestricted air drafts, and natural storm shelter. The region boasts the world’s largest naval fleet concentration area, three major naval shipyards, five major container terminals jointly operated by the port authority and the Commonwealth of Virginia, and more than 60 privately operated facilities spanning from Richmond to Norfolk. Over the past 12 years, the Port of Virginia’s economic contributions to the Commonwealth’s economy have more than doubled. College of William and Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business studies in 2008, 2014, and 2019 have shown the state-controlled port authority’s marine terminals were responsible for creating $41.1 billion, $60.3 billion, and $92.1 billion in state business revenue, respectively.
Moreover, the region’s growth and infrastructure development are staggering. In 2019, the Virginia International Gateway completed a $320 million expansion project contributing to a record-breaking three million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of cargo handled. As part of a larger $700 million investment designed to increase port capacity by 40 percent and handle upward of 4.4 million TEUs per year, the port recently installed four of the East Coast’s largest ship-to-shore cranes, and a massive effort is underway to make the port the deepest on the East Coast by 2024. A $350 million Army Corps of Engineers project is underway to increase the channel width from 1,000 feet to 1,200 feet, and the channel depth from 50 to 55 feet. Moreover, Craney Island Marine Terminal is the largest fully permitted port expansion project on the East Coast, where the need for additional container terminal capacity in Virginia is necessitated by global growth, the arrival of larger vessels, and expansion in international trade. Both Governor Ralph Northam and Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation have remarked on “Virginia’s status as home to a world-class port” and the port’s ability to “connect Virginia’s economy and America’s business and consumers to markets around the globe.”
Growth also is underscored by the $3.8 billion Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel expansion, $756 million Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel expansion, and projected $1.1 billion coastal offshore wind energy investments for the nation’s largest wind-turbine project with 220 turbines to be built off the Virginia Beach Coast. Finally, the region sustains Navy fleet operations and training, national defense sealift and military outload capability, mid-Atlantic spaceport operations at NASA Wallops Island, and recreational boating and commercial fishing, while also supporting growth in liquid natural gas bunkering and export.
Clearly, the Hampton Roads region, the port, and the MTS are growing. The response and resilience framework for such a massive and interconnected complex of activity cannot be shouldered by any one agency.
A Model for Enduring Success
The port’s ability to successfully and reliably operate across the full spectrum of operations and business lines is directly proportional to the protective factors enabled by the interconnected web of regulatory, law enforcement, emergency management, and first response capabilities. Within the captain of the port region, the Coast Guard’s operational echelon known as a “sector” constitutes the primary federal coordinator for security, safety, environmental stewardship, and economic prosperity mission portfolios. There are 37 Coast Guard sectors throughout the nation. In Virginia, the sector includes 550 people, 580 volunteer auxiliarists, four 87-foot coastal patrol boats, and six small boat stations located throughout the area.1 This capability is complemented by a framework of trust, partnerships, and capability across the region’s municipalities, counties, and coastal regions, defining a whole of surge and response capacity that is far greater than the sum of all the parts.
The MIRT is a task force of approximately 200 first responders and assets, dive teams, and police and fire boats, each responsible to their respective municipality, but bound cooperatively together by a memorandum of agreement and shared spirit of service to emergency response in the region. Formed in August 1990, primarily as a fire-fighting capability, the MIRT has progressively expanded over the past 30 years to incorporate all-hazards capabilities in search and rescue; dive, salvage and underwater survey; marine firefighting; radiological response; and even public health and pandemic operations. Instantiated under the Port of Virginia and the port authority, the MIRT is a one-of-a-kind leadership model that binds capability together, leveraging Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant funding and resources, and generating unsurpassed first-response effort, spirit, and collective energy to this rapidly growing region.
MIRT and Coast Guard Operations
Over the past 30 years, the MIRT has worked alongside 13 captains of the port in countless first-response operations, hurricane and severe weather preparations and port reconstitution, and has brought together a combined 500 first responders for annually recurring on-water and practical training events. While too numerous to recount here, the following examples of response and preparation represent the foundations of the region’s best-practice partnerships.
Train to respond. Since the MIRT’s formation, it has partnered with the Coast Guard to develop a framework of shared interagency training, tactics, and procedures—a common lexicon and fluency—across the maritime first response portfolio. Hailed by FEMA as a best-practice and benchmark for port security grant funding, the MIRT has conducted a combined 49 annual forums dedicated to three primary capabilities: marine firefighting, dive and salvage, and search and rescue. These three- to five-day-long forums blend classroom training with on-water exercises and practical scenarios designed to develop common response protocols and capabilities. Of note, the Annual Todd Dooley Search and Rescue Forum, now in its 15th year, has grown to nearly 200 people, representing 40 agencies and 35 assets. This preeminent event has been indispensable to establishing common ground and capability to ensure robust search and rescue capability throughout the region. Attendees travel from as far as Philadelphia, Richmond, Baltimore, and Charleston to commit to learning and training with one another. Most importantly, these annual events keep relationships well-tended and generate strong bonds of trust among agencies.
Operations and response. In the past three years, the port completely closed for marine traffic as Hurricanes Florence (2018), Dorian (2019), and Isaias (2020) threatened the region. Two times, the Navy also sortied its fleet, which had not previously happened since Hurricane Irene in 2011. With a port closure costing $250 million per day, the pressure to reopen the port is intense, and spans commerce and national defense priorities. This complex decision to reopen must include an assessment of post-storm impacts that could pose waterways risks and hazards to inbound and outbound traffic. From the entrance of the port at Cape Henry and Cape Charles, to its interior on the Elizabeth River, the MIRT’s resources have been indispensable to providing surface assessments throughout the channels and waterways, and ultimately providing the captain of the port the required information to reopen the port to traffic. This capacity includes channel assessments for marine debris and shoaling, as well as side-scan sonar assessments for potential underwater obstructions. With 30 to 50 small boats operated by police and fire departments across the region, the MIRT and its mobile command center serve as a key operations center for the post-storm recovery effort.
The region’s search-and-rescue cases can be some of the most heart-wrenching and difficult, but with multiple assets and a shared commitment to rescuing those in distress, or searching for a family’s loved one, the joint Coast Guard–MIRT team provides a level of overwatch and community support that defines the Hampton Roads spirit. In December 2020, a tragic accident on the 23-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel resulted in a multiday search effort above, on, and below the water, using combined assets and sonar capabilities. In July 2018a tugboat collided with a recreational boat on the James River, and the search for two missing boaters included joint Coast Guard–MIRT assets. Annually, Sector Virginia manages more than 300 search-and-rescue cases, with more than 50 percent of these incorporating MIRT agencies and port partner assistance.
During summer and fall 2020, political boat parades emerged as a popular channel for boaters to express support of presidential candidates. From June to October, 14 parades with nearly 3,000 boaters were coordinated, often with very little to no short notice. Coast Guard and MIRT patrol presence was crucial to ensure the safety of these events, coordinating shared use among defense, commercial, and recreational users. Moreover, the city of Norfolk’s annual Harborfest is a capstone event bringing thousands of boaters into the congested waterway, and the MIRT joins the Coast Guard in bringing law enforcement, firefighting and incident command post resources to ensure a safe and productive event.2
Finally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, with early vaccine distribution challenges to the maritime industry critical workforce, MIRT leaders were crucial to coordinating local municipal health departments’ vaccination schemes for the region’s pilots, stevedores, agents, and maritime operators. Exemplifying how “trust” cannot be surged, it was through the yearlong pandemic response and public health planning that key officials understood the criticality of the marine supply chain and its workforce.
Additional examples abound of Coast Guard–MIRT coordination and response and include deep-draft vessel groundings, missing aids-to-navigation identification and recovery, hazardous materials and radiological response, and facility and vessel fires. The capabilities have emerged to become an “all-hazards” response framework throughout the port.
Trust: It cannot be surged. Embracing partners as trusted agents and critical experts across the full domain of operations and emergency and disaster-response planning, and incorporating them into diverse cross-cutting and multidisciplinary committees to address the full span of MTS missions, requires vulnerability, admitting what is not known, and trust. The MIRT’s success over the past 30 years is built on deep foundations of trust forged during emergency responses and rescues, portwide threat and vulnerability assessments, and a comprehensive strategic vision for the growing and dynamically changing port region. The annual cycle of port-partner engagement, training, and joint exercises assures these response networks are strong, capable, and trusted across the full spectrum of contingency response. In this region, the Coast Guard–MIRT partnership has been the hallmark for the port’s continued success and may be a model for success for other U.S. ports.
The Long-Game: Collaboration, Cooperation, Coordination
U.S. ports are a platform for national security, global competition, and homeland prosperity. The threats to the MTS span the full spectrum of contingencies that threaten viability, and they are becoming more complex each year: natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and winter storms; human-made disasters such as cyberattacks, oil spills, and grounded vessels like the Golden Ray and Ever Given; agency infrastructure, capability, and resource limitations not matched to port growth; and global pandemics affecting people and first responders. Resilience is not measured by an agency’s or partner’s capabilities, but rather by the collective, bound by common operating standards, a shared commitment to the port, and bonds of trust cast in enduring networks of collaboration, field exercises, and incident responses.
As ports continue to grow, port coalitions and partnerships will become more important. Moreover, these alliances represent innovation and information-sharing centers geared toward solving complex issues: cyber-attack detection and response, unmanned aerial and marine systems technology development, integrated communication systems, and joint environmental stewardship capabilities. With so much of the country’s global power and influence originating at its coastlines, the vibrant and capable MTS—defined by enduring governance models, trusted port partnerships, and all-hazards response capability—only succeeds when everyone succeeds together.
1. The United States Coast Guard Auxiliary is the uniformed volunteer component of Team Coast Guard. Founded in 1939 by an Act of Congress as the US Coast Guard Reserves and redesignated the auxiliary in 1941. The 26,000-plus volunteer members (men and women) donate millions of hours to support the operation of the Coast Guard, promote and improve recreational boating safety, and provide trained crews and facilities to enhance the safety and security of US ports, waterways, and coastal regions.
2. Harborfest has been cancelled the past two years (2020 and 2021) because of the COVID-19 pandemic.