“One of the most difficult challenges we face is to prevent, deter, and defend against the acquisition and use of WMD by terrorist groups. The current and potential future linkages between terrorist groups and state sponsors of terrorism are particularly dangerous and require priority attention. The full range of counter-proliferation, nonproliferation, and consequence-management measures must be brought to bear against the WMD terrorist threat, just as they are against states of greatest proliferation concern.” National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, December 2002 Most first responders in the United States and their counterparts overseas are aware of how the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Strike Force (NSF) Strike Teams have been developed and trained to be able to respond both quickly and effectively in times of national crisis.  These teams, which are national-response assets available to support any U.S. agency that needs them in times of crisis, operate out of Fort Dix, New Jersey, Mobile, Alabama, and Novato, California. These headquarters put them in good position to provide a ready response to oil spills, hazardous material releases, and CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive) incidents that occur anywhere within the United States or overseas. The teams are not only well trained but also equipped with the protection gear (up to Level A – i.e., fully encapsulated) needed to enter hazardous environments to perform a variety of tasks.   Although the Strike Teams are not only very capable but also able to deploy rapidly, they are not, strictly speaking, front-line first-response assets. They first must be requested by the agency or department with command responsibility at the scene of a national incident, and then travel to that scene by land and/or air – a process that in most situations would take several hours even in a best-case scenario. The true front-line forces of the Coast Guard are the men and women operating from shore stations and ships located throughout the U.S. maritime domain and carrying out their duties on a 24/7 basis – boarding vessels, visiting waterfront facilities, and responding to emergencies alongside their local agency counterparts on a daily basis. These are the Coast Guard members best positioned to detect CBRNE weapons or precursors that terrorists may attempt to smuggle into the U.S. homeland by sea. They also, therefore, are not only the first but also the most likely to be called on to respond to a CBRNE incident in the maritime domain. All-Hazards, All-Purpose Safety Equipment As part of the U.S. strategy to improve the nation’s overall ability to detect and respond to CBRNE weapons, the Coast Guard has equipped its front-line personnel with a broad and growing spectrum Improving the ability of Coast Guard front-line personnel to actually operate in a hazardous environment is the focus of a new effort by the service of detection systems and emergency-egress equipment. In the not-too-distant future, every member of every Coast Guard boarding or inspection team will be wearing both a personal radiation detection (PRD) device and a gas-alert clip – the latter is designed to detect the presence of chemical agents.   The PRD is a simple device that detects the presence of neutron and/or gamma radiation.  When a PRD activates, Coast Guard team members are instructed to call back for more sophisticated equipment (U-identifiers and radiation backpacks) that can localize and characterize the radiation source.  The information developed is quickly shared with Department of Energy personnel to determine if a threat exists. The latter step is necessary because so many materials carried as cargo emit radiation, thus creating a high potential for false alarms. The gas-alert clips measure the levels of oxygen, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon monoxide in the air as well as the lower explosive limit of the local environment. Each of these readings may be an indicator of a possible chemical weapon as emission from such weapons can displace oxygen, emit the other gases listed, and create a potentially combustible concentration of gases.  Activation of the gas-alert clip warns the wearer that he or she may be entering an unsafe environment.  In such cases the clip wearer is instructed first to exit the space as quickly and as safely as possible, then to start an assessment to determine why the alert sounded. The emergency-egress equipment consists primarily of protective suits and masks – including emergency-escape breathing hoods – that personnel can don quickly to escape from a hazardous environment should a CBRNE weapon detonate in the vicinity.  It is important to emphasize that this equipment is designed for escaping the hazardous environment, not to remain in the environment for any reason. Improving the ability of Coast Guard front-line personnel to actually operate in a hazardous environment, however, is the focus of a new effort by the service. The Coast Guard also has launched a pilot program to understand the challenges involved with developing and sustaining the expertise necessary for operating in a hazardous environment, and is equipping its people with the detection systems and sensors they need to perform a variety of other missions on a daily basis. The service’s goal is to develop an initial maritime CBRNE response capability that can function effectively in coordination with other local responders until more expert and capable surge forces such as the Strike Teams arrive. Fulfillment of that goal will be another milestone in the unending process of making the U.S. homeland safer, more secure, and more survivable.

Christopher Doane

Christopher Doane and Dr. Joseph DiRenzo III are retired Coast Guard officers and visiting fellows at the Joint Forces Staff College. Both of them have written extensively on maritime security issues. Any opinions expressed in the preceding article represent their own views and are not necessarily the official views of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Joseph DiRenzo III

Dr. Joseph DiRenzo III is a retired Coast Guard officer. He's visiting fellows at the Joint Forces Staff College. He has written extensively on maritime security issues. Any opinions expressed in the preceding article represent their own views and are not necessarily the official views of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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