Petty Officer Andre Altavilla’s job title is flight mechanic – aviation electrical technician, to be exact – but on Dec. 18, 2010, when rescue swimmer Christopher Austin hauled a fisherman’s limp body from the icy, roiling waters of Washington’s Willapa Bay, it was Altavilla who took the man aboard the rescue crew’s HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter and administered the CPR that brought him back to life.
Likewise, Petty Officer James Collins of Coast Guard Station Saginaw, Mich., is much more than a boatswain’s mate – he’s one of the most experienced ice rescuers on the Great Lakes, which is within the Coast Guards 9th District. When someone falls through the ice into the frigid Great Lakes’ waters, Collins is part of the team – comprised of himself, boat mechanics, and people of other rated job classes – that sets out with an ice skiff to find the victim. He also teaches ice rescues to other service members at the Coast Guard’s Ice Capabilities Center of Excellence in Saginaw.
In the Commandant’s Direction, issued in early 2011, Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., reminded the Coast Guard: “Every Coast Guard member is a first responder.” That principle is impossible for Coast Guard members to ignore; it’s in the Coast Guard’s motto, Semper Paratus (Always Ready), and can be traced to the service’s founding roots. The Revenue Cutter Service was for a few years the nation’s only naval assets, and not only were they law enforcement ships – but they protected the nation’s coasts from incursion, and responded to vessels in distress. When the Revenue Cutter Service merged with the U.S. Life-Saving Service in 1915, it was a natural fit, and a unique agency was born: a combination of the nation’s first responders, with both law enforcement and military capabilities.
For Coast Guard Deputy Commandant for Operations Vice Adm. Brian M. Salerno, this dual nature defines the organization. “I think one of the most distinctive aspects of the Coast Guard is that we are at all times both a military organization and also a law enforcement organization,” said Salerno. “It’s the only service in the federal government that has that dual characteristic.” Its very nature allows the Coast Guard enormous flexibility: If a seagoing vessel entering U.S. waters has been identified as a threat, the federal government doesn’t have to decide whether it’s a military or a homeland security issue – the Coast Guard has the authority to act in either case.
This authority also allows the service to exercise control in U.S. seaports. For example, the Coast Guard has the authority to control traffic in response to any threat or incident such as a terrorist attack, environmental pollution, or a natural disaster. The service’s cutters serve alongside U.S. Navy ships in the Northern Arabian Gulf, and Coast Guard law enforcement detachment teams, commonly known as LEDETs, serve aboard Navy ships and perform counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa, as well as counter-drug operations in the Caribbean and the Eastern Pacific.
The Coast Guard tends to describe its activities functionally, in terms of prevention and response, but that dichotomy doesn’t describe the ways in which its prevention activities strengthen its response capability. The service’s people and assets are distributed throughout the country. “Our people,” said Salerno, “live and work in the communities they serve.”
The Coast Guard works with local police, fire, emergency management, and environmental protection agencies to prepare for anything from an oil spill to a hurricane. As they work to manage risk through safety exercises, vessel and equipment inspections, and other community interactions, Coast Guard personnel become the “cop on the beat” within the maritime domain. “All of those activities bring our members in contact with the maritime community, which makes us aware of how they operate, what’s normal, and creates relationships,” Salerno said, “which then become extremely valuable in a response when you rely on partner agencies. We’ve formed those relationships, and they’re exercised almost every day in some way. So when the really significant event happens, we are not meeting people for the first time in a command center. There’s an element of trust that’s been built up. That’s enormously powerful in the chaos of a big event.”
When the Coast Guard switches into response mode, its military culture guarantees that it can do so instantly, without asking for permission; its relationships with local, private, and state organizations ensure that it can mobilize resources around a local incident commander.
When President George W. Bush appointed Adm. Thad Allen, then-chief of staff for the Coast Guard, to lead the federal government’s response and recovery effort as the principal federal official after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005, it was a recognition that the Coast Guard’s leadership expertise was necessary because, as a Coast Guardsman, he knew how to interact with other government and civilian organizations. “In a situation like Katrina,” explained Salerno, “where you had a military joint task force, commanded by Gen. [Russel L.] Honoré, and then you had the entire rest of the federal government response – FEMA working with the states and local governments – those two things had to be bridged somehow. That’s really what Adm. Allen did in that role. Because the Coast Guard is comfortable in both worlds, we are in a very unique position to help broker across agency boundary lines.”
The events that unfolded over six months during the response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster – and the effects of which are still being assessed by the Coast Guard and its partners – offer examples of the service’s ability to lead and transition among different missions, all within the timeline of a certain event. When the offshore oil drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico, about 40 miles southeast of the Louisiana coast, the event was, first and foremost, a search and rescue (SAR) case – 11 workers were killed in the explosion and ensuing fire, 16 injured, and more than 100 people needed to be evacuated from the platform. The Coast Guard immediately launched an operation involving two cutters, four helicopters, and a C-130 Hercules aircraft; within two days, these assets had surveyed nearly 2,000 square miles of ocean in search of the 11 lost crewmembers.
Also within those two days, the entire rig had burned and sunk, and it was clear that the wellhead was leaking oil from the ocean floor. Deepwater Horizon had become a pollution response case – another of the Coast Guard’s primary missions. “Some people might ask: ‘Couldn’t some other agency have been in charge?’” said Salerno. “And perhaps another agency could be given that responsibility – but it’s important to realize that in addition to pollution response, large maritime spills raise a host of other issues which have to be managed in a coordinated way – a role that the Coast Guard is uniquely suited, trained, and equipped to perform.”
As the scope of the environmental disaster gradually became clear, large numbers of commercial vessels and aircraft began to converge on the area to help with cleanup efforts. However, such a large congregation in the Gulf, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, posed a potential threat to the safety of the vessels and response personnel themselves. In addition, the large area impacted by the oil in the Gulf could have disrupted the normal flow of commerce into several Gulf Coast ports. Within this complex set of circumstances posed by Deepwater Horizon, the Coast Guard led SAR operations; led the coordination of the largest pollution response in the nation’s history; established control of the area to manage marine traffic; ensured safety and protected lives; and protected the U.S. economy from further damage. “All of that in one package,” said Salerno, “is what you get with the aggregation of authorities in the Coast Guard.”
To be able to transition from one mission to another in a chaotic, unforgiving and dynamic maritime environment so quickly requires a high degree of proficiency, agility, and resourcefulness that is unusual among public servants. People like Altavilla and Collins, who can switch at a moment’s notice from repairing helicopters or driving boats to saving lives, may seem unusual to most Americans, but they’re fairly typical Coast Guardsmen. Last Jan. 12, when Haiti was struck by a catastrophic earthquake that affected 3 million Haitians, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutters Tahoma and Mohawk – already in the Caribbean conducting counter-drug patrols and other missions – were first on the scene. With their Haitian counterparts, Coast Guard crewmembers began to sort through the chaos, setting up triage for the wounded and performing first aid, often using scraps of wood to splint broken bones. They shared their food and water, and within 24 hours, they were evacuating the severely injured to facilities for treatment or amputation. The Tahoma’s crew even delivered a baby on the cutter’s flight deck. After the dust had settled, the CGCs Oak and Valiant arrived to conduct port assessments and repair damage to the nation’s main harbor at Port-au-Prince, to enable needed supplies to flow directly into the city.
“There’s a humanitarian aspect to what we do,” said Salerno. “I think that attracts a unique person. I’m always proud of our service, and I think most people who wear this uniform have resourcefulness and a desire to help others that’s quite uplifting. You see people in the Coast Guard do extraordinary things when they’re put into situations that look almost impossible.”
This article was first published in Coast Guard Outlook: 2012 Edition.