One of the first acts of the new U.S. government following the Revolutionary War was to create ways to help ensure the safety of ships, their crews, and passengers sailing in the new nation’s waters. That began with creation of the Lighthouse Service in 1789 and went on to include the Revenue Cutter Service in 1790, the Steamboat Inspection Service in 1838, the U.S. Life-Saving Service in 1878, and the Maritime Service in 1938 – all eventually merged into the U.S. Coast Guard, created in 1915.
The Revenue Cutter Service, sometimes informally referred to as the “First Fleet,” was indeed the new republic’s first and – from 1790 until the re-establishment of the U.S. Navy in 1798 – only maritime military service, operating warships and other vessels to protect U.S. coastal, trade, and maritime interests and assist mariners in distress.
“… As a leading U.S. representative to the International Maritime Organization, a part of the United Nations, the Coast Guard is the driving force behind shipping safety, pollution prevention, and mariner training and certification standards,” according to the Coast Guard Maritime Safety Web page.
Founded as an Atlantic maritime nation, the U.S. need for lighthouses and other aids to navigation (ATON), inspections and credentialing of commercial and pleasure vessels (including foreign-flagged vessels operating in U.S. waters and ports), ice patrols, and maritime search and rescue (SAR) grew with the country and its borders. While still focused on national waters off the U.S. Atlantic, Caribbean, Gulf, Pacific, Arctic, and Great Lakes shores, the Coast Guard’s responsibilities in the 21st century have expanded to encompass all of the Western Hemisphere and, as needed, extend globally.
While many of the service’s 11 congressionally mandated missions are related to law enforcement and homeland security, one of those – maritime safety – is integral to all Coast Guard activities, no matter where they are located.
With some 89,000 active-duty, Reserve, Auxiliary, and full-time civilian employees, operating some 250 cutters, 1,700 boats, and 200 aircraft, the U.S. Coast Guard ranks as the 12th largest uniformed naval force in the world. From its origins as the Revenue Cutter Service under the Treasury Department, the Coast Guard only falls under the jurisdiction of the Defense Department, via the Navy, at the discretion of Congress or the president during time of war.
In April 1967, President Lyndon Johnson issued an executive order transferring the Coast Guard to the newly created Department of Transportation, which was considered a better fit given its expanding duties with respect to commercial shipping at sea and on navigable U.S. inland waterways. Continued new and growing duties led to its second reassignment to the Department of Homeland Security, formed by the convergence of 22 agencies in the wake of 9/11.
The Coast Guard’s relocations within the federal government followed its expanding missions, always centered on U.S. navigable inland waterways and territorial coastal waters – even as its areas of responsibility (AORs), permanent and temporary, expanded globally – with safety, under a wide range of definitions, always a key component.
“This morning I signed the Coast Guard ‘Western Hemisphere Strategy,’” Adm. Paul Zukunft, Coast Guard commandant, posted on the service’s official blog, Coast Guard Compass, Sept. 25, 2014. “It addresses transnational threats and maritime challenges that threaten the security of our nation, markets and oceans over the next 10 years. The Coast Guard is globally deployed, but our primary operating area remains in the Western Hemisphere.
“As we engage future challenges we must think strategically to best position our resources to leverage our unique authorities, capabilities and partnerships to achieve national objectives across the range of Coast Guard missions. … We will safeguard commercial interests of the United States and help ensure secure global commerce by protecting lives at sea, ensuring a safe, secure and resilient maritime transportation system, building and sharing incident management expertise and protecting our natural resources.”
Maritime safety, within the Coast Guard missions’ sphere, includes navigation buoys; safe boating instructions for civilians; search and rescue (SAR); inspection of commercial vessels, mobile offshore drilling units, and marine facilities; location and notification of icebergs; enforcement of safe and environmentally sound operation of U.S.-flagged vessels throughout the world and foreign-flagged vessels operating in U.S. waters; investigation of the causes of maritime accidents to formulate new regulations, laws, training, etc., to help prevent similar incidents in the future; and conduct of anti-piracy programs and patrols.