The climate and geography of the Pacific Northwest – stormy weather, flowing south from Alaska, piling breakers onto a narrow continental shelf backed by rugged mountains – create the unique conditions that drive much of the work of U.S. Coast Guard District 13, responsible for the states of Washington and Oregon and portions of Montana and Idaho.
Two unique training schools exists in the district to prepare U.S. Coast Guard personnel for these conditions: the National Motor Lifeboat School (NMLBS), at Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment, which trains boat operators in the rough surf characteristic of the region, and the Advanced Helicopter Rescue School (AHRS) at Air Station Astoria, where helicopter pilots and crews are trained for rescues in cold water, on high seas, and from rocky cliffs. Just as the NMLBS began last year to export its training to surfboat stations along the coast in order to enable trainers to go where the surf is, the AHRS recently engaged in an attempt to export its unique training programs. According to Capt. Salvatore Palmeri, chief of the district’s Incident Management Branch, the school will soon be offering training in Northern California, in the Coast Guard’s 11th District, at AirStat Humboldt Bay. “The hope there is to increase the through-put of students and get more pilots and aircrew and rescue swimmers with those skills,” Palmeri said. “Air Station Humbolt Bay and our Air Station North Bend worked together in getting that worked up and approved.”
Security in the Sound
The sea approaches to Puget Sound – where the Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca converge on the vast stipple of tiny islands separating Canada’s Vancouver Island from Washington’s San Juan Islands – comprise the nation’s most labyrinthine and difficult-to-patrol international boundary, and District 13 is responsible for maintaining the security of the maritime border with Canada. The traditional frustration of not being able to engage a potential threat once it crosses the boundary is now mostly a thing of the past, given the May 2009 signature of the joint “Shiprider” agreement, formalizing a partnership between the U.S. Coast Guard and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) for joint patrols along the shared maritime border.
In March 2010, the Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy, the RCMP, and the Canadian Navy wrapped up a cross-border, information-sharing, and law enforcement effort, Operation Podium, which strengthened security during the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. By a number of measures, said the 13th District’s chief of response, Capt. Eric Chamberlin, Operation Podium was a success: “What we were asked to do by the Canadians,” he said, “was to provide maritime domain awareness in approaches to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and from anybody coming from U.S. waters to Canadian waters. And we were asked to participate in the Shiprider program so that we would have a seamless enforcement throughout, from U.S. waters through the border to Canadian waters … the coordination of operations was outstanding.”
In Puget Sound itself, the 13th District operates the nation’s largest Vessel Traffic Service, monitoring 230,000 vessel movements a year over an area of 35,000 square miles – including the nation’s largest ferry system, which carries 24 million passengers annually. Such a level of activity complicates another key District 13 mission: security escorts for U.S. naval assets, such as submarines and aircraft carriers, transiting into and out of the Sound. The district includes a unit known as a Maritime Force Protection Unit, one of only two in the nation formed and trained specifically to escort Trident ballistic-missile submarines to and from their home ports, and for naval vessels, the security buffer created around these assets – the Naval Vessel Protective Zone (NVPZ) – is 1,000 yards, literally twice as large as anywhere else in the country. The size of the 13th’s NVPZ, Chamberlin said, is dictated by the configuration of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. “We’re looking at escorts that sometimes can last 12 to 16 hours,” he said, “and so we need to have a zone that allows us the flexibility to protect the assets we are asked to protect and escort, while also protecting the general population and allowing them to utilize the waterways as they’re able.”
The 13th is considered such a vital district for port and waterways security, in fact, that it was selected as one of the first districts to roll out training for armed helicopter patrols, at AirStat Port Angeles. Since 2008, aircrews and armed gunners have been conducting land-based and open-ocean firing range training and maneuvering drills in order to enable machine gun-fitted Coast Guard MH-65C helicopters to deter attacks on vital maritime assets. The last round of airborne use of force helicopter patrols was recently completed at Port Angeles, which has been flying active AUF patrols for about a year now.
Big Changes for District 13
Fittingly, Station Cape Disappointment in Ilwaco, Wash., and AirStat Astoria in Warrenton, Ore., are right across the mouth of the Columbia River from each other, at the place where District 13 was established. The first lifesaving station in the Pacific Northwest was established at Cape Disappointment in 1877, to lend aid to the many sailors who found themselves shipwrecked on the treacherous sediment bar just offshore of the river’s mouth – an area known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific.”
The importance of the Coast Guard’s work at the mouth of the Columbia is partly behind a major organizational overhaul that was completed in the summer of 2010, when the district’s two sector commands became more centralized: on July 30, Sector Seattle became Sector Puget Sound, a command entity that brought operational control of all Coast Guard resources within the Puget Sound area under a single command – most notably, the search and rescue operations conducted out of AirStat Port Angeles, on the Olympic Peninsula, will now be commanded out of the sector’s headquarters in Seattle. The organizational shift isn’t likely to be noticed by the people the Coast Guard serves, said Capt. Scott Bornemann, chief of prevention for the 13th District and temporary commander of the new Sector Puget Sound, but it will eliminate some overlapping jurisdictions. “Now the search and rescue mission coordinator zone, the captain of the port zone, the officer in charge of marine inspection zone are all the same,” he said.
On Aug. 23, 2010, Sector Portland became Sector Columbia River, an entity that combined the inland and coastal Coast Guard resources along one of the nation’s most important commercial shipping routes. The reorganization will move much of the sector’s command staff to Astoria, where the bulk of the sector’s law enforcement and SAR operations take place. At the same time, Sector Portland will become Marine Safety Unit Portland, a unit more locally focused on the safety and security of the commercial shipping traffic within the Columbia and Willamette rivers’ complexes.
According to Bornemann, the “resectorization” of the 13th is a way to make the Coast Guard’s activities in the district more efficient: “The Coast Guard examined the missions and services and responsibilities that we execute on a day to day basis,” he said, “and we determined that the maritime community would best be served by putting the complete mission suite under one individual. It works out easier and streamlines services to have it under one command. And most important, it helps us speak with one voice to our customers – whether it’s the public, industry, or the other government agencies we partner with daily.”
This article first appeared in the Coast Guard Outlook 2011 Edition.