Defense Media Network

Rear Adm. Steve Branham Interview

U.S. Coast Guard District 7 Commander

What has been learned since the Cruise Ship CoE opened to evolve it further?

What we’ve reaffirmed is that dialogue is good. When you go to regulate an industry like this, there is always some tension between the regulators and those being regulated, so familiarity and dialogue, year-round, ensures compliance and, on our part, awareness of challenges the companies have in complying with the regulations we enforce.

It’s the old thing about exchanging business cards well before you have a need to talk to someone “right now.” Making sure we have a good relationship before we need to work on an issue is one of my goals.

What are your expectations for the Cruise Ship Center, both its specific job and as a template for other centers?

My expectation is we will continue to build the expertise of our people and pollinate that around the Coast Guard, ensure we are available to respond to requests for information and assistance from other commands in the Coast Guard that need expertise from that CoE and that we continue to foster greater cooperation with industry and build upon the relationships we have.

What are your views on Seahawk – how it has evolved, what it is contributing, what you expect of it in the future? [Editor’s Note: The Seahawk information-sharing tool is the basis for the Coast Guard’s new “Watchkeeper” program and the classified “MAGNET” program, which are being rolled out nationally in the next two years. Seahawk standard operating procedures are being rolled into the Watchkeeper program for use at all major ports.]

Seahawk, in my view, is one of the premier examples of intergency cooperation in the maritime area in the country, a model I think could be emulated wherever something like that is needed. In Charleston, I have a very active, high-volume port with various types of cargo and passenger ships operating. The intragency comes together at that facility and works together exceptionally well.

We’ve dealt with a transition as funding responsibility for that operations center has shifted, making sure we can continue to grow that capability because it has been demonstrated to work. Seahawk originally was funded through DoJ, with a sunset requirement that forced a re-look at who was going to contribute. A short-term solution was worked out to provide funding to keep the people and equipment working for the next year while we continue to work on a long-term approach.

Seahawk brings together information and people and, to some degree, intelligence – and there is a difference between information and intel – on a daily basis to direct interagency capability to the highest priority flow of maritime commerce through that port. We collect information each day from CBP, ICE and potentially other agencies, such as the FBI, along with the port authority, local law enforcement agencies and maritime agencies, on which ships need to be escorted, which need to be guarded at the pier, which require a Coast Guard or customs boarding – all coordinated to get away from the old way of having each of those organizations working in a stovepipe that could have led to multiple boarding teams showing up to meet a single ship.

The mission is to more effectively and efficiently apply our assets, through coordination and sharing of capability and information. It is about safety, security, stewardship and coordination. And it’s good for the industry, because they see a more coordinated enforcement and regulatory effort. Coordination also builds confidence in the security aspects.

We can’t afford not to be coordinated and to share responsibility for all these safety and security requirements. Everyone is under fiscal pressure and minimally manned, so working together has been our mandate within DHS as well as in working with other agencies outside the department.

How is D7 employing new technologies, such as biometrics, especially 10-point checks of illegals while still aboard ship to classify and separate them?

We currently use technology to identify people we come across at sea. We’re not applying that technology elsewhere right now because of concerns by other agencies or because we just don’t have enough of the capability to deploy at this point.

We are not currently using 10-point checks, primarily because we don’t have the bandwidth to broadcast that much information. We use the old two-point checks [basically both index fingers]. The R&D Center is currently looking into the 10-point system, because that is the way into the DoD/DoJ data bases.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...