Following the Sept. 11 attacks, Coast Guard crews have worn body armor and a pistol belt with handcuffs and pepper spray. Scott Orate, left, and Tom Kron posed on Friday with the two machine guns kept on vessels at the Coast Guard group operations center on Sand Island.

9/11 changed
Coast Guard

The terrorist attacks force a
shift in priorities from rescues
to maritime and harbor security

By Gregg K. Kakesako

It's now routine for Coast Guard Petty Officer Tom Kron and his crew to strap on their bulletproof vests and their loaded 9 mm Berettas when responding to an emergency off Oahu.

It wasn't always like that. Sept. 11 changed what used to be simple search-and-rescue response alarms to armed patrols where "we're out there with our weapons exposed and ready for action," says Rear Adm. Ralph Utley, commander of the 14th Coast Guard District.

Before Sept. 11, search-and-rescue crews would board their 41-foot utility boat, wearing just their blue work coveralls and a orange life jacket. They knew their only mission was to rescue a boater in distress.

Now Kron, 31, said: "It's a different mindset. It could be some sort of illegal activity out there; it could be a homeland security breach that we are responding to."

His crew of four wear sidearms, two fully armed M-60 machine guns are mounted on either side of the ship with a loaded shotgun or a M-16 rifle in the cabin of the vessel. Besides the body armor the sailors wear a pistol belt with equipment similar to those used by police officers -- handcuffs and pepper spray.

A beefed-up Coast Guard presence at Honolulu Harbor and at several security zones, like Barbers Point, where the state's only oil refinery is located, as well as more patrols along the waterfront have become routine.

A cargo ship coming into Honolulu Harbor must give 96-hour notice before its arrival, Utley said. Before Sept. 11, the policy was 24 hours.

The ship now must report its cargo, provide a crew and passenger list, its destination and where it came from.

"All that information is entered into a security data base," Utley said. "If it is determined to be a high-interest vessel, then we board it 12 miles out and eventually escort it in."

Chief Warrant Officer Michael Miyaji, one of 12 marine safety officers, said once aboard the crew is brought to one central location where their passports are examined and the ship is inspected.

So far, Miyaji said, no ships or crew members have been detained.

Before the terrorist attacks, all of his inspection work dealt mainly with safety issues. Since the terrorist attacks, the number of inspections has doubled. Not only are "high-interest vessels" stopped and searched, but others also are picked randomly for inspection, Miyaji said.

Utley, who since June 22, 2001, has commanded the biggest Coast Guard district in area but the smallest in assets and personnel, said the emphasis in the Pacific used to be illegal migrant patrols and fisheries law enforcement.

"We were always involved in homeland defense," Utley said. "But on Sept. 10 it only took up 2 percent of our time. By Sept. 12, it was up to 58 percent."

"Basically, we have only changed our focus," Utley said. "We are patrolling a lot more. There are harbor patrols daily onshore and offshore."

When the first hijacked plane hit one of the World Trade Center's twin towers last year, there were only two sailors pulling a routine 12-hour watch duty at the Coast Guard's command center on Sand Island.

Petty Officer Bobby Brinkley, 27, was monitoring the command's center radios. A television was on in the next room. It was just after 3 in the morning and Brinkley was passing the time talking to his father in North Carolina by phone.

"'Are you watching television?'" his father asked him. "'Turn it to the news.' It was at that moment the second plane hit ... I didn't know what was going on. I called my supervisor."

A few minutes later, Lt. Patricia Kutch, the group's executive officer, called, telling him to have the 378-foot cutter Jarvis, which was supposed to deploy to South America, on standby.

Cmdr. Thomas Tabrah, the group's commanding officer, reported to his command center just after 5 that morning. "I put the cutter at the mouth of Honolulu Harbor."

He then alerted his small boat crews in Hilo on the Big Island, Nawiliwili on Kauai and Maalaea on Maui to be ready "to be a deterrent against any attacker."

That's the posture the Coast Guard has maintained since then as it awaits to become part of a new federal agency devoted solely to homeland defense.

Other changes are under way in the Coast Guard as it begins its first phase of a $17 billion building program involving ships, aircraft, communication and logistic systems.

Hawaii also will get one of the six Maritime Safety and Security Teams in 2004 -- special federal maritime SWAT teams trained and specially equipped to proved an extra layer of security to key ports, waterways and facilities.

But Tabrah and Kron tend to agree that one of the first links to a more secure Hawaii is a vigilant public.

Kron said recreational boaters and members of the professional maritime community should keep an eye out for anything that looks peculiar or out of the ordinary.

"One of the best counter-terrorism measures," Tabarah said, "is an informed and alert public. If someone sees something suspicious, they need to report it.

"The public has a thousand eyes, and that is an important tool."

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