How the Coast Guard Got Its Groove Back

Balancing people, equipment and partnerships to overcome the post-Sept. 11 overload.

After 25 years of Coast Guard service and two previous field tours, I figured it would be just like any other day when I relieved friend and fellow captain Joe Castillo as commander of Group New Orleans in June. As my first command, it would certainly be a change of pace from my three consecutive assignments-totaling eight years-at headquarters in Washington. But I wasn't prepared for the rush of emotion, including apprehension, during the formal change of command ceremony.

I hadn't been thinking about what "I relieve you" really meant, but when I saluted Castillo and said it out loud, what had been abstract became reality. I wasn't sure whether the perspiration on my brow was because of the sultry heat or the realization of what I was stepping into.

Group New Orleans is the parent command for 16 smaller units that carry out all Coast Guard missions in an area ranging from Mississippi to western Louisiana, from wells offshore in the Gulf of Mexico north to Baton Rouge. The group's responsibilities also include 250 miles of the Mississippi River, nearly the same amount of the Intracoastal Waterway, more than 1,000 miles of smaller waterways and hundreds of square miles of lakes, swamps and bayous. Four of the nation's largest ports, by tonnage, fall within this area, and nearly 300 major facilities-refineries, chemical plants, etc.-line the waterways. A quarter of the nation's petroleum comes from or through the area, along with much of its seafood. The role the river, bayous and Gulf play in the everyday lives of the residents of southern Louisiana is evident everywhere, and this concentration of industry, commerce and natural resources continually presents huge challenges.

The first and most important thing I learned while those sweat beads still were on my brow was that I was not alone in carrying out my responsibilities. In the days that followed, I met and was briefed by nearly every one of my Coast Guard, federal, state and local partners, dozens of people representing the industries we regulate, support or partner with, as well as the Coast Guard Auxiliary and other local volunteer organizations. The many horror stories about competition, lack of cooperation and outright hostility between agencies and with industry proved untrue.

Much has been written about increasing demands on the Coast Guard, particularly with regard to homeland security. It has been suggested that we don't have enough resources to do our job, that we have reduced traditional mission areas to meet our new homeland security obligations, and that our marine transportation system and ports are dangerously vulnerable. Yes, we're stretched thin, there are vulnerabilities and we're adjusting our focus. But we have made and are continuing to make measurable progress by balancing effort across our missions, taking a leadership role in the maritime community, and multiplying the effect of all our resources and relationships.

We've always had limited resources and a wide range of responsibilities. But by carefully managing what and how much we do, we can meet mission demand. The problem of insufficient resources emerges when demand exceeds the capacity of our assets and when what should be surge operations become the new baseline. At that point, we accelerate wear and tear on equipment, burn out people, and erode readiness. For a time after Sept. 11 we were in this position, but over the past three years we've learned a lot about how to maintain the right balance. New cutters and boats have entered the fleet with more to come. By working smart, staying within our limits, and paying extra attention to people and equipment, we've become more productive and effective than ever.

The argument that we've neglected traditional missions-such as search and rescue or safety and law enforcement-because of increased emphasis on homeland security also might have been true for a short time after 9/11. But it's certainly not the case today. In fact, we're doing more of our traditional missions than ever while significantly increasing our vigilance. I attribute this to the better ways we've found to work with industry and our government partners. Instead of looking at improving security as exclusively federal, we've elevated our traditional close cooperation with these players. Building on the concept of "defense in depth," or layered security, we have collaboratively defined roles for industry and local and state agencies, focusing on prevention, such as facility security, and response. With each new player comes another layer of security and specialized skills, making the overall structure much more robust.

Finally, we're making the best use of our capability through planning and analysis. When I first joined the Coast Guard, we relied mostly on intuition and instinct to anticipate future requirements. We also had an organizational infrastructure built around narrowly focused programs. This worked reasonably well 20 years ago, but as demand for service and cost of operations has increased and budgets and the margin for error have decreased, we've had to become more deliberate and precise in how we plan, allocate resources and coordinate with partners.

I took two steps in this direction shortly after taking command of Group New Orleans. I restructured the existing stovepipe organization, and then I subtly shifted the focus of our relationships with our partners. The organizational change created two broadly focused divisions: operations, which oversees all planning, command and control, training, readiness management and related functions; and logistics, which focuses on personnel, finance and supply, engineering, and support for our units. I hoped that collapsing the stovepipes would give us a more global perspective on problems and solutions. By altering the focus of our relationships, I tried to place more responsibility for security on the owners and operators of facilities and waterway users. The multilayered approach maximizes everyone's contributions without shifting what is appropriately the Coast Guard's role onto others. So far, the signs are encouraging from both initiatives.

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