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America’s Waterway Watch

To many Americans, the threat of terrorism didn’t become real until Sept.11, 2001. Prior attacks are often forgotten, including a pair in 2000 against U.S. Navy destroyers by explosives-laden small vessels in the Gulf of Aden: A plot to sink USS The Sullivans failed on Jan. 3, 2000, when the attacking vessel sank under the weight of its explosive cargo, but 17 sailors were killed and the USS Cole badly damaged when it was rammed while docked at the Yemeni port of Aden on Oct. 12 of that year.

In the aftermath of these attacks, the U.S. Coast Guard launched its effort – much intensified after 9/11 – to reach out to citizens who, with their constant presence in American ports and waterways, may help to maintain vigilance against possible attacks. The effort combined the work of the active-duty Coast Guard and its Reserve and Auxiliary components to educate citizens about threats and to enlist the help of those who live, work, or recreate in American waterfronts.

America's Waterway Watch banner

The U.S. Coast Guard unveiled the America’s Waterway Watch (AWW) program banner at Pier 36 in Seattle, Wash., Feb. 19, 2008, to advertise and encourage participation in the program. AWW is akin to a neighborhood watch program and asks residents to report unusual or suspicious behavior to the National Response Center’s Hotline at 800-424-8802 or 877-24WATCH. Official Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer David Marin

The program that would become American’s Waterway Watch (AWW) was just under way in 2003 when Sayed Abdul Malike, a passenger aboard a Miami sightseeing vessel, while videotaping a nearby bridge, asked Capt. John Martin how close a vessel could come to bridges and cruise ships in the area, as well as other suspicious questions. Martin turned the helm over to his first mate and immediately contacted the Coast Guard. Malike was later caught in an FBI sting operation, trying to purchase enough C-4 explosive to – in his words – “blow up a mountain.”

By 2005, the Coast Guard had unified its local efforts under a national umbrella, according to Ryan Owens, chief of the Coast Guard’s Industry Information and Outreach Branch. “America’s Waterway Watch started out being focused more on the recreational boating community,” Owens said, “mainly because they’re the largest demographic of people on the water in the United States. There is a very specific threat perceived from that small vessel community, so the thought was to engage them and make them part of the solution rather than part of the problem.” Under the AWW program, volunteer Coast Guard auxiliarists build educational awareness among the recreational boating public and marina operators – who are urged to report suspicious behavior to the Coast Guard’s National Response Center’s Hotline, 877-24 WATCH, or 800-424-8802.

“Those reports … get fed into our databases that go to state and local and federal law enforcement folks,” said Owens, “to help them investigate reported suspicious activity.”

AWW 2.0
In recent years, Owens said, at listening sessions around the country regarding the Department of Homeland Security’s draft Small Vessel Security Strategy, the Coast Guard began to hear from stakeholders that an expanded version of the AWW program was needed, one that involved a more dynamic relationship between citizens and the Coast Guard.

Coast Guard Sector Seattle, in partnership with the Seattle Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Ports of Tacoma and Seattle, Washington State Patrol, the Washington State Ferry System, and other law enforcement agencies around Puget Sound conducted a press conference Feb. 19, 2008, to discuss America’s Waterway Watch and to ask the public to take an active role in safeguarding our ports. Official Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer David Marin

In the Pacific Northwest – an area of vast and labyrinthine waterways that challenge the capabilities of the Coast Guard’s District 13 – such a program was already under way: the Citizens Action Network (CAN). Designed to leverage the participation of local residents and workers in assisting all Coast Guard missions, the CAN provided a workable template for other regions. “AWW basically now has two elements,” Owens said. “You have the national AWW program, which is: If you see something suspicious, then call this number. Then at the local level you have the Citizens Action Network, which allows the local Coast Guard sectors to use their small vessel community – be it tug and barge operators, or the fishing fleet, or the marinas, whatever they have in their area – as an additional set of eyes and ears. So it’s a much more localized and dynamic relationship that helps increase the maritime domain awareness capabilities of that local sector.”

The CAN program completes the circle of maritime domain awareness by making use of citizens in specific locations. If there’s a report of something suspicious, a distress signal or flare, or an accident or spill, local residents can communicate with the Coast Guard and help it to understand what’s going on before assets are committed.

Better community awareness and efficient use of its assets are critical to the Coast Guard’s missions. Given the volume of suspicious activity calls – 26,000, Owens estimated, during 2010 – citizens can serve as a clarifying lens. “[The volume of calls] gives us a couple of things,” he said. “It allows us to capture national trends that may be happening, and intel analysts can take a look at that and say. ‘There seems to be a lot of activity going on in a certain port right now. Let’s take a look at what’s going on with the intel that we have.’ I would say 97 percent of the time a suspicious activity call is not an immediately actionable, ‘We’ve got to go get this bad guy’ kind of situation. Often it fits into a broader puzzle: somebody was asking some funny questions about a bridge, and then a couple of weeks later someone was buying a lot of gasoline and putting it in his boat. So it’s like multiple pieces that, when looked at as a whole, kind of come into focus as a bigger picture.”

On a more immediate level, citizens who participate in the CAN program can have a direct effect on the outcome of a search and rescue case, accident, spill, or other event by calling the local Coast Guard or 9-1-1.

Together, Coast Guard personnel and auxiliarists logged 3,000 hours of outreach during 2010, raising the public’s awareness about what kind of suspicious activity to look for and what to do about it when they see it. 26,000 calls in a year is a good measure of the programs’ effectiveness, and to Owens, 26,000 calls annually is a good thing. “It’s a blessing, because that’s 26,000 people who know of the number and are committed to making a call. Every call can be important. And certainly, if your gut tells you something is wrong, then we want you to follow your gut.”

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...