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Patrols keeping watchful eye on Potomac.

Puttering along in the Boundary Channel of the Potomac River, near the Pentagon, the operator of the slow-moving dinghy warily watched the sleek, red and gray Coast Guard response boat as it approached. Would he be stopped and questioned? Would his boat be searched?

As it turned out, he had nothing to worry about. "Ordinarily, we don't do anything unless we see something suspicious," said Lt. j.g. Chris White, executive officer of Coast Guard Station Washington, one of the service's newest and smallest bases.

Coast Guard crews are trained to be watchful, White told National Defense during a recent familiarization cruise along the river. "Not every terrorist threat is going to have a sticker taped on it saying, 'bomb.'

"For example, a boat tied up under the 14th Street Bridge, with nobody around--we need to pay attention to stuff like that," he said. "Some of the piles have ladders going from the water right up to the bridge decks."

The Coast Guard began patrols along the Potomac in the wake of 9/11. The goal was to improve waterborne protection for the nation's capital, said Lt. Frank Del Rosso, the station's commander.

Originally, the patrols were conducted by reservists and temporary-duty boat crews, with personnel rotating every three weeks to three months. During the first two years of operation, more than 200 Coasties, as members of the service are called, performed the patrols.

"In those days, we were underway 24/7," said Petty Officer 1st Class Bruce Walker, who arrived on scene the day after the 9/11 attacks.

Eventually, however, the need for a permanent presence became clear, and earlier this year the Coast Guard established the Washington station, with 26 men and women crowded temporarily into a tiny space on the waterfront at Boiling Air Force Base. At first, the patrols were conducted with a 41-foot utility boat and a 21-foot Aid-to-Navigation craft. "We found the 41 footer too much boat, and the 21 footer too little," Walker said.

Since then, the station has been assigned two brand-new 25-foot, Defender Class Homeland Security Response Boats. "We're scheduled to get a third one around the middle of March, and possibly a fourth boat later," said Del Rosso.

The boats are part of a package of 700 such vessels that the Coast Guard agreed last year to buy from SAFE Boats International, of Port Orchard, Wash., for $145 million, or $180,000 each. The vessels can be deployed by road, on trailers, or by air, on C-130 aircraft.

With twin 225-HP, four-stroke outboard motors, the boats can reach speeds approaching 50 knots, and "they can turn on a dime," changing direction at high speed, White said.

The boats' cabins are equipped with shock-mitigating seats, a state-of-the-art navigation system with an electronic chart plotter and a communications system that can link up with other federal, state and local agencies, he pointed out. The vessels also have a loudspeaker system to communicate with other craft and individuals in the water or on shore.

The high speed enables the boats to race quickly across their area of responsibility, which reaches from Interstate 95's Woodrow Wilson Bridge to the western edge of Georgetown and up the Anacostia River, past the Washington Navy Yard.

The boats have a shallow draft--only 34 inches--permitting them to go close to shore, and take a close look at suspicious-looking people hanging around sensitive locations. On one recent patrol, for example, the crew noted apparent photographers at the north end of the runway for Reagan National Airport. They seemed to be using long-lens cameras to take photographs of airliners just as they took off.

The crew called the U.S. Park Police, who have jurisdiction over the site, to request that they check out the photographers to make sure that they weren't setting up a surface-to-air missile attack. As it turned out, the Park Police already had investigated the pair, and they were OK.

"If need be, we have the authority to go ashore, question them ourselves and check their identifications," White said. "But I wouldn't do it unless we were armed." Normally, he said, patrol crews are armed with 9 mm pistols, M-16 rifles and 12 gauge shotguns. The boats have fore and aft mounts for M-60 machine guns.

The station purposely avoids regularly scheduled patrols, White explained. "There's nothing routine about them," he said. "You don't want to tip your hand. The routes, times and lengths of the patrols vary, depending upon the alert status. The weather also can slow us down. Some patrols last an hour and a half. But I've been on one that lasted longer than eight hours."

In January, the Coast Guard was tasked to provide waterside security for the president's State of the Union Address. The service's local force was supplemented with the 87-foot Coastal Patrol Boat Beluga, from Norfolk, Va.; Maritime Safety and Security Team 91106, from New York City, the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Harbor Patrol, the U.S. Secret Service and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

With these reinforcements, the Coast Guard stepped up patrols, identifying and tracking all commercial shipping north of the Wilson Bridge.

Although Washington and nearby Alexandria were active seaports earlier in their history, the river today gets relatively few oceangoing vessels. But it still gets plenty of local traffic, including tug boats pulling barges of construction sand and gravel, shiploads of newsprint, sailing regattas, high school and college rowing teams, and fishermen.

The response boats normally slow down as they pass under the bridges. "There are often bass fishermen under there, and we don't want to create our own search-and-rescue case," Walker said.

Winter weather can get hazardous on the Potomac, requiring the Coast Guard to come to the aid of boaters.

The station's response boats can't operate in ice, but they have heated cabins enabling them to patrol in frigid winter weather. Crewmembers wear custom-fitted, two-layer drysuits to protect them in case they should fall into icy waters.

Starting on May 1, the station is scheduled to add search and rescue, routine maritime law enforcement and boating safety to its list of missions, Del Rosso said. Previously, those tasks had been left primarily to the D.C. Harbor Patrol, the Alexandria City Police Department's Marine Operations Team, the Potomac River Rescue Association and five nearby Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotillas.

The association and the flotillas "are all volunteers," Del Rosso said. "They are able to help out with homeland security missions. They serve as our eyes and ears on the river. They help with recreational boating safety and search and rescue."

Plans are underway, he said, for Auxiliarists to come into the station and stand radio watch with active-duty Coasties.

The Coast Guard is quick to point out that it is not replacing any of the local organizations or supervising them. "We're not taking over," White said.

In addition to its security duties, the station "serves as a platform for a lot of agencies because we have the boats," Del Rosso said. On one particular day, for example, one heavily armed Coast Guard team was conducting a classified mission on the river with a contingent from the Energy Department. "We're providing the waterborne assets," he explained. "Beyond that, I can't get into specifics."

At the moment, the station's quarters are somewhat cramped. Its 26 personnel share a 1,000-square foot, two-room building with one toilet facility. The two boats are docked outside, at Bolling's recreational marina.

Because the station operates 24 hours per day, seven days a week, it maintains two hotel rooms at the base hotel for on-call personnel to sleep. "We have four to six people per watch," Del Rosso said. "If a significant event occurs, we can pulse up. We can have 100 people here like this," he said, snapping his fingers.

Eventually, Del Rosso said, the Coast Guard plans to build a larger permanent facility nearby, with on-site berthing, dining, locker-room and bathroom Facilities, as well as a boathouse to store and work on boats. The station is located at Bolling, he noted, because Coast Guard headquarters--situated across the river at Buzzard Point--lacks secure docking space.
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Author:Kennedy, Harold
Publication:National Defense
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2004
Words:1356
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