The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001 were a terrible shock to the United States and the world, but they also served as a wakeup call regarding national security, as efforts by the US armed forces to protect the homeland were greatly increased after the terrorist attacks.
And it was a role that the Coast Guard found itself uniquely qualified for, because out of all the American military agencies dedicated to protecting the country, the US Coast Guard is special in that it has dual missions: one as maritime law enforcement and another as a federal regulatory agency.
During peacetime, the Coast Guard operates under the US Department of Homeland Security, but during wartime or other special situations, it can be transferred to the US Navy.
That ability to serve multiple roles came into play following the collision of the two planes into the World Trade Center towers, when hundreds of thousands of people were trapped on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, unable to escape by bridge.
The Coast Guard played a hugely important role in bringing New Yorkers to safety in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. After the first of the two towers was struck, the Coast Guard put out a call for all boats to respond to Lower Manhattan, and the call was answered by hundreds of merchant mariners piloting tug boats, ferries and every other type of watercraft.
What was eventually formed was a boatlift that safely evacuated 500,000 people in just nine hours.
And since that time, the Coast Guard's role in protecting people has evolved and continues evolving.
On Nov. 25, 2002, the Department of Homeland Security was established, and the USCG became of the agencies to operate under it. The following year, the Coast Guard saw the formation of what it calls Maritime Safety & Security Teams, or MSSTs. The teams, 11 units in total with 60 members each, are dedicated, as the name suggests, to protecting the nation's waterways.
"After the attacks, we realized there were a lot of port security (issues), we didn't have specialized forces or specialized people to do the port security," explained Lt. Jeannie Crump, the executive officer for the MSST in Seattle. "The maritime safety and security teams were made so that we could all deploy throughout the United States any time there's a big event."
"Anytime there's a big fleet week or anytime that the President has any maritime events, pretty much any big event that could have a highly negative impact on the United States, that's where we go," she said.
Of the 11 units located across the U.S., five are on the west coast: one each in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Honolulu.
"As far as port security, we do security on all of the military offloads, so whenever military ships come back with ammunitions, we're doing security on that vessel to make sure that there's no terrorist attacks that would come upon the military vessel," Lt. Crump said.
"Additionally, we do safety patrols for all the high capacity passenger vessels, and for the most part those are ferries," she said. "We have quite a few here in the Seattle area because it's the largest ferry system in the United States, but we also have it for the Alaska marine ferry system and the San Francisco ferry system. That's a huge one that has been implemented since 9/11. And because of 9/11, there's a higher risk of something happening because of the high capacity passenger vessels."
Another department within the Coast Guard, Coast Guard Prevention, is the division that inspects vessels and protects not only the public, US ports, but also the environment and American economic interests through the prevention and mitigation of maritime incidents.
Coast Guard Prevention is broken down into four branches: Inspections and Investigations, including Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA) compliance; Fishing Vessel Safety and Recreational Boating Safety; Waterways Management, including aids to navigation and domestic ice breaking; and Coast Guard Auxiliary and Bridges.
All branches focus on the prevention of deaths, injuries and property damage associated with maritime transportation, fishing and recreational boating, but it's the Inspections and Investigations branch that's responsible for vetting vessels via the various Vessel Traffic Systems found at each large port, including those on the west coast in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Honolulu.
The VTS essentially inspects every vessel to make sure it's a legitimate vessel and that came from a secure port and that it's not carrying any stowaways or contraband.
The vigilance has paid off, and not just when it comes to preventing terrorist attacks on commercial vessels, but also intercepting drug smuggling on private vessels.
In an average year, Coast Guard at-sea interdictions amount to more than three times the quantity of cocaine seized at US borders and within the country combined. And USCG statistics show that during the 2016 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, the Coast Guard broke records for narcotics removal.
Between October 2015 and September 2016, the Coast Guard removed over 416,600 pounds of cocaine, detained 585 suspects, and transferred 465 suspects to the US for prosecution, all of which are records. The USCG also seized 172 smuggling vessels from October 2015 through September 2016, and conducted 263 drug interdictions, data show.
The fact that the Coast Guard managed to set these kinds of records in 2016 after the service having been in existence for over 226 years is a testament to the service's continuing evolution and improvement in its role.
Another aspect of that role is boating safety, and it has taken on increasing significance in the years since 9/11.
In charge of those efforts is the boating safety division, which is dedicated to reducing loss of life, injuries, and property damage that occur on US waterways by improving the knowledge, skills and abilities of recreational boaters.
Starting in 2006, the Coast Guard began putting together a series of five-year strategic plans for boating safety.
The latest such plan, released in November 2016 and covering the years 2017 to 2021, is the third such plan and the latest step in an evolution that the Coast Guard has undertaken over the past decade and a half. The plan continues or updates boating safety initiatives and progress measurements that have been in place since the first plan was formulated in 2006, and closes gaps identified in the most recent review of strategic opportunities.
The plan includes three primary initiatives: improving and expanding recreational boating education, training and outreach; updating, leveraging and enforcing policies, regulations and standards; and improving and expanding recreational boating data collection and research.
The document serves as a reminder that the Coast Guard has a wide variety of duties and responsibilities. In 2015, the Coast Guard says it counted over 4,150 accidents nationwide that resulted in over 600 deaths, 2,600 injuries and $42 million in property damage as a result of recreational boating accidents.
The strategic plan, which is formulated with the help of various public and private boating safety organizations, attempts to prevent such numbers from getting higher in future years.
So as 2016 draws to a close, the US Coast Guard finds itself on the vanguard of many efforts: the prevention of terrorist attacks, protection and inspection of cargo ships, and even looking after the safety of recreational vessels.
It's a series of roles that even top officials in the branch couldn't have imagined 15 years ago. On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, then-USCG Commandant Admiral Bob Papp acknowledged as much as he looked back to comment on how the Coast Guard had evolved over the past decade.
"We have greatly enhanced our ability to monitor activity on the water to detect potential threats through surveillance tools, increased vessel and aircraft patrols, partnerships with governmental and private entities and membership in the intelligence community," Admiral Papp said.
"Coast Guard capabilities have also vastly evolved," he commented. "We now have teams of highly trained, deployable specialized forces to protect our ports and respond to the full range of maritime threats. We continue to recapitalize our fleet with new aircraft and cutters outfitted with advanced sensors that are fully interoperable with both DHS (Department of Homeland Security) components and Department of Defense assets. We have also constructed a layered maritime defense strategy of shore-based, maritime patrol and overseas inspection forces."
As the Coast Guard enters 2017 and its 227th year in existence – going back to its creation in 1790 as the Revenue Marine – the force is expected to continue setting the standard for protection of people, property and the environment.