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U.S. Coast Guard District 9 – The Great Lakes Region

Mission excellence in a seasonal, saltless, shared system

To think of the Great Lakes as merely “lakes” belies their size and complexity as well as the threats and challenges they present to those involved with their protection and security. The Great Lakes encompass more than 6,700 miles of U.S. shoreline, roughly equivalent to a round-trip drive from Miami, Fla., to Seattle, Wash.

Together, these massive bodies of water form a complex, seasonal, and continuous maritime system representing a wide range of environments – from saltless seas much more like oceans than lakes to narrow rivers that challenge even the most seasoned mariners.

The Great Lakes region is considered home to roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population and almost 30 percent of the Canadian population. Issues local to the region often become bi-national priorities. Combine that with the interests of 42 tribes, eight U.S. states, three Canadian provinces, and hundreds of county and local stakeholders across the region, and the jurisdictional complexities are enormous.

Headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, the 9th Coast Guard District’s responsibilities extend from Lake of the Woods at Baudette, Minn., to Massena, N.Y., making it the only federal agency organized around the entire Great Lakes system.

“We’re unique not because of what we do, but because of how we do it,” said Rear Adm. Michael Parks, commander of the district. “We protect people on the lakes, we protect people from threats delivered from the lakes, and we protect the lakes themselves, but we recognize that no agency can do that alone. We use our authorities to build unity of effort, integrated operations, and awareness among regional partners to manage risks on the lakes.”

The challenges associated with regional safety and security are daunting considering that roughly 300,000 people and $1.5 billion in trade cross the mostly maritime border between the United States and Canada every day, which is why Parks promulgated the Great Lakes Maritime Strategy to serve as the five-year strategic framework for the Coast Guard on the Great Lakes.

The strategy is focused on six enduring objectives: excelling at mission execution; inspiring and serving District 9’s people; enhancing bi-national cooperation and governance; optimizing force allocation and resources; strengthening partnerships; and sharing the District’s story. These objectives enable 9th District men and women to safeguard the system and the maritime community by advancing national objectives and shaping maritime border policy through a seamless bi-national enterprise of safety, security, and stewardship.


Achieving the Vision

The last year was a busy one for District 9. Coast Guard crews across the lakes saved 381 lives, assisted more than 5,500 others, and saved more than $5.5 million in property.

BBC Finland Inspection

Marine Science Technician 2nd Class Patrick O’Hare of Marine Safety Detachment (MSD) Massena, N.Y., analyzes the salinity of ballast water aboard the Italian-flagged vessel BBC Finland with a digital refractometer in the Eisenhower Locks in Massena. MSD Massena inspects all vessels entering the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence Seaway to ensure ballast water exchange to prevent the introduction of invasive species. U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA3 Bill Colclough

These statistics don’t do justice to the true story of the 9th District. The real value the Coast Guard provides to citizens of the Great Lakes is not found in numbers; it’s found in how members of the service accomplish missions – the flexibility, authority, and on-scene initiative Coast Guard members exercise to adapt to situations, promote unity of effort, and achieve operational objectives.

“To be regarded as masters of our craft and excel at mission execution, you need not just qualification, but also proficiency,” said Capt. Stephen Torpey, 9th District chief of response. “However, our region’s unique seasonality makes it hard for D9 crews to sustain qualifications, much less proficiency, due to severe winter ice conditions. There is no other place in the Coast Guard where we have to expect and train our crews to respond on soft and hard water with regularity.”

In the spring, the winter thaw brings the annually high rescue caseload between Memorial Day and Labor Day, impacting all District 9’s assets, which include nine cutters, two air stations, 47 smallboat stations, six marine safety units, and four aids to navigation (ATON) teams. Nearly 45 to 55 percent of the district’s response cases occur during this short summer season. The cutter fleet and ATON teams also service more than 1,200 aids semi-annually during Operations Fall Retrieve and Spring Restore. As a result, there is rarely time left for training.

To boost proficiency and help crewmembers master their crafts, District 9 established programs to ensure crews are able to practice and demonstrate the skills necessary to accomplish their missions such as: early springtime aircrew deployments to Aviation Training Center Mobile, Ala., for hoist training; annual smallboat crew deployments to Fort Knox, Ky., for the Machine Gun Boat Course; and annual cutter crew deployments to the Eastern Seaboard for mounted automatic weapons training at sea. Also, across the region, the district offered a multiagency Boat Operations and Training Course to Coast Guard crews and partners to improve response and tactics in the maritime domain.

In addition to proficiency, excelling at mission execution requires the ability to analyze trends and develop tactics to address emergent issues. To combat an almost 70 percent increase in the number of water-related deaths across the Great Lakes in fiscal year 2010 compared to 2009, the district worked closely with partner agencies to enact the “Great Lakes Recreational Boating and Water Safety Campaign Plan,” to arrest the number of lives lost across this maritime region. Because of that aggressive outreach, deaths in fiscal year 2011 are down 39 percent when compared to the same time period in 2010. “We have an obligation to help and to lead where appropriate to improve safety throughout the Great Lakes region,” said Parks.

The ability to succeed also requires every individual to understand the value they bring to the organization. “I ask everyone who serves in D9 to do two things,” said Parks. “Do your very best and take care of your shipmates.”

It’s obvious a number of 9th District shipmates have taken Parks’ charge to heart. Active-duty, reserve, civilian, and Auxiliary members throughout the district were recognized on the national level for inspired service and leadership. Whether it was this year’s DHS Financial Supervisor of the Year, the Coast Guard’s Civilian Employee of the Year, the National Image Meritorious Service Award winner or the 2010 Fireman 1st Class Paul Clark Boat Forces Engineering Award recipient, district members earned the respect and recognition from their peers as being among the best watchstanders, cuttermen, aircrews, boat crews, marine inspectors, support team members, and volunteers in the entire service.

District 9 has built and sustains a diverse set of relationships, formal and informal, with Canadian partners to ensure safety and security on the lakes. Integrated maritime security operations, informally referred to as Shiprider operations, provide for a cooperative approach to combating cross-border crime on shared Canadian and U.S. waterways, and enabled the Coast Guard and Royal Canadian Mounted Police to provide seamless security for the G20 Summit in Toronto in June 2010.

Bi-national cooperation and governance begin before ships even enter the Great Lakes system through the St. Lawrence Seaway near Massena, N.Y., where a team of Coast Guardsmen and members of Transport Canada work together on Joint Initial Verification Teams to examine and review vessel security plans for all incoming ships.


Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Cpl. Raj Sandhu checks a mariner’s identification while aboard a U.S. Coast Guard vessel during Shiprider law enforcement operations along the Niagara River in support of the G-20 Summit June 26, 2010. Shiprider operations involve cross-designating Coast Guard and RCMP officers to enable them to effectively engage in maritime law enforcement operations along the U.S./Canada border by jointly crewing marine vessels with law enforcement officers from both agencies. Working together, the 9th District and Canadian officers are able to transit back and forth across the border to better identify, target, and interdict threats on shared waterways. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Blackwell

A similar joint effort screens incoming vessels in the fight against the spread of aquatic nuisance species (ANS). As a member of the U.S./Canadian Great Lakes Seaway Ballast Water Working Group (BWWG), the Coast Guard and Transport Canada counterparts conduct a ballast water examination on every incoming vessel to ensure compliance with mandatory ballast exchange and recordkeeping. “The Coast Guard’s ballast water discharge standard rulemaking will help eliminate the risk of ballast-mediated introductions of aquatic nuisance species, and that rule may be published sometime in late 2011,” said Capt. Darryl Verfaillie, District 9 chief of prevention, concerning the service’s effort to establish new national standards. In the last five years, no new invasive species have been identified as being introduced by ballast water.

“Our biggest challenge,” said Parks, though, “is to achieve our objectives and ensure adequate safety and security on the Great Lakes in a decremental budget environment. We have to apply available, finite resources in such a way that it ‘buys down’ the most risk.”

To improve on the service’s ability to meet its missions, units and citizens of the Great Lakes region were the beneficiaries of new tools and technologies that improved the Coast Guard’s mission performance. “With new technologies and capabilities, we can’t be afraid to challenge previous assumptions and improve the status quo,” said Parks. “If we are to excel at mission execution in a complex environment, we simply can’t afford the luxury of inefficiency or waste.”

From the installation of Rescue 21 communications equipment at Sectors Detroit, Mich., Sault Sainte Marie, Mich., and, in the near future, Buffalo, N.Y., to the delivery of several new 45-foot Response Boat-Mediums, and to the groundbreaking and construction of new facilities at Station Cleveland Harbor, Ohio, District 9 found ways to buy down risk through the optimization of force allocation and resources. District staff is also providing input on a service life extension project involving all of the Coast Guard’s 140-foot icebreaking tugs, five of which are homeported around the Great Lakes.

“We cannot meet every mission priority alone,” said Parks. “The public expects, and our missions demand, that we seek out sustainable partnerships at every level of maritime interest.”

During 2010, District 9 partnered with Customs and Border Protection peers in the region to sign and approve Standard Operating Procedures for Coordinated Air and Maritime Operations throughout the Great Lakes. It is the first time Great Lakes DHS leaders have memorialized such a partnership and provided written guidelines to enhance operational effectiveness irrespective of individual agency boundaries.

While anyone can point to statistics as a measure of success, those in District 9 realize that the truest measure of achievement is found not in what the Coast Guard does, but in how the service does it.

Nobody understands that better than Parks. “Our experience with incident response such as search and rescue – combined with a unique blend of authorities and competencies interwoven with a cultural bias toward action and partnership – equips us to add value to a wide spectrum of maritime interests.”

This article was first published in Coast Guard Outlook: 2012 Edition.