The USCG San Francisco Sector: Navigating the Challenges


10/17/2011: During the Second Line of Defense visit to the West Coast in late July 2011 to discuss USCG operations and challenges, a wide-ranging discussion was conducted with the San Francisco Sector.  Captain Cyndy Stowe, Sector Commander led the discussion.  Captain Bliven, Commanders Stuhlreyer, and Tama participated in the round table as well.It should be noted that the Sector recently opened a new operations center which will have a major impact on the capability of the USCG to conduct among other things, search and rescue missions.

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Photo Credit: SLD 2011

U.S. Coast Guard Sector San Francisco unveiled a new high-tech operations center today that officials said would facilitate multiple agencies during a disaster and help take the “search” out of everyday search and rescue operations.The $18.1 million two-story Interagency Operations Center, or IOC, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, opened today to much fanfare at a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring keynote speaker House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco.The Coast Guard protects Americans from the sea and threats delivered by the sea, as well as the sea itself, she said.

“The IOC will allow us to do so with the most cutting-edge, innovative technology, and interoperability between all of our first responders,” she said. “That is a remarkable, remarkable achievement.”She said that just after the Sept. 11 attacks, interoperability among local, state and federal agencies seemed “almost impossible.”“Now you have it here,” she said.

The new center has space for members of the Coast Guard, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and California Emergency Management Agency to work side by side in case of an emergency.Members of local jurisdictions such as the San Francisco, Alameda and Oakland police and fire departments can coordinate at the interagency center, which will be especially valuable during the upcoming America’s Cup sailing race, Pelosi said.

Also housed at the new command center will be Rescue 21, a state-of-the-art emergency communications and location system that Sector San Francisco has been phasing into its operations, Coast Guard Captain Jay Jewess said.The program helps Coast Guard rescuers quickly locate distressed vessels by reducing search areas by up to 95 percent, he said.Mariners send out a call for help over VHF Channel 16, which goes out to seven radio towers along the coast and inland waterways. Four towers are set to come on line soon.

The new high-tech receivers can detect the direction from which the call is coming, allowing rescuers to track direct lines of bearing to the distressed vessel and home in on a smaller search area, Jewess said. (Also added to the new system is Channel 70 for digital communications, many maritime radios have and embedded GPS capability so that their position can be transmitted as well; thereby helping solve the location problem as well: comment added).Before, the towers would receive the signal but did not know where it originated.

Rescuers only knew which towers had and had not received the signal, and they would use that information to triangulate a much larger search area.Sector San Francisco began implementing Rescue 21 about six months ago, according to Coast Guard Capt. Cynthia Stowe. The technology proves valuable on a daily basis, the members of Sector San Francisco said.

SLD: What area does the sector cover?

CAPT Stowe: Sector San Francisco’s area of responsibility (AOR) spans from the northern California/Oregon border south along the coastline for about 600 miles to the Monterey-San Luis Obispo County Line.  We cover 200 miles offshore and have the responsibility for the entire San Francisco Bay, including Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta reaching the ports of Sacramento and Stockton nearly 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean.  And, we also have responsibility for inland lakes where there is interstate commerce, notably Lake Tahoe, and Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming and Utah.

SLD: It’s a region that reaches deep inside the continental United States as well as reaches out.  And therefore, that reflects the nature of the Coast Guard’s mission, which is really management of the territory with threats associated with the maritime domain?

CDR Stuhlreyer: Yes; we monitor, regulate and deal with the movement of vessels on the water, the arrivals, departures, economic activities, and recreational activities, all of these types of activities in the maritime domain.

SLD: What kind of assets do you have available for the missions that you have?

CAPT Stowe: We have four 87-foot, Coastal Patrol Boats for the Sector, which allows us to have one boat underway at all times, or a single point of coverage for the AOR. We also have eight Multi-Mission Small Boat Stations.   Two of these Stations are located on the Coast, two are in the San Francisco Bay and two are located on the rivers.  One is the Coast Guard’s only station on an alpine lake: Station Lake Tahoe.  We also have a station that is open seasonally at Santa Cruz, California and is subordinate to our station in Monterey.  In addition we have a Marine Safety Detachment in Humboldt Bay and an Aids to Navigation Team that covers the Bay and inland rivers.  In total, these resources cover one of the largest geographic Sector AORs in the Nation.

SLD: We last met when you were in Sector Miami.  How is Sector San Francisco different from Sector Miami?

CAPT Stowe: The primary mission set varies pretty significantly between Miami and San Francisco AORs.  In Miami, law enforcement is the primary mission including frequent illegal drug and migrant interdictions.   For San Francisco, Search and Rescue and Port Safety and Security are our primary mission areas.  In San Francisco, we respond to the largest number of Search and Rescue cases in the nation with more than 1,500 cases every year.  Environmental protection of the Bay and Coastline is also of great important in San Francisco.  The Coast Guard works on a day-to-day basis with other Federal, state, local and private environmental managers to eliminate or minimize threats to the marine environment.

SLD:   What’s the impact of the weather on the West Coast as compared to tropical weather in Miami?  What’s the difference perspective that you get from serving in Miami versus here in terms of just the physicality of the Pacific?

CAPT Stowe: Here is a great example.  Last year in Miami, we had a case where two men were disoriented in an afternoon squall in their 14-foot open boat and they headed away from shore until they ran out of gas. We found the two men four days later off the Coast of Georgia.  They were dehydrated, but they were ok.     On the West Coast when we lose a boater, or we lose a swimmer, or we lose a kite surfer, everyone goes to GQ (General Quarters—an emergency mode of operations), and you have a very short time period to locate them.  Additionally, there is no sandy bottom where you can drop an anchor and no sandy beach to wash up on.  If you’re in distress and you’re offshore, you’re going to be on the rocks if we can’t get to you in time.

CDR Stuhlreyer: Another difference on the west coast compared to the east is that the asset lay down is somewhat lighter on the west coast.  For instance, our small boat stations are anywhere from 60 to 100 nautical miles apart on the coast, so the Small Boat Station’s AORs are much larger.  Whereas in the same stretch of coast back east, you might have two sectors, and six or eight small boat stations along the same length of Coastline.  You only have a couple of small boat stations on the Pacific Coast.  This is a function of historical development, geography, and population density and it poses some unique challenges in terms of distance and response time.

SLD: What do they have at the air station?

CDR Stuhlreyer: Air Station San Francisco has four HH-65 Helicopters.  (The Coast Guard’s short-range rescue helicopter).  If we have a case in the northern or southern AOR, the helo will likely need to refuel before it respond, refuel again enroute, and then go out for a limited amount of time.  This is a perfect example of the unique challenges posed by our large AOR.

SLD: And the impact of the water here versus Miami and its impact on operations?

CDR Stuhlreyer: Of course the water temperature is much colder.  I would say that the offshore water varies between 51 or 52 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, and maybe gets up to 57 or 58 degrees in the summer in the San Francisco AOR. The colder temperature significantly reduces the survival time and therefore our reaction time to conduct Search and Rescue missions.

CAPT Stowe: It’s challenging to cover our geography to execute the Search and Rescue mission in a timely manner.  Another issue that stresses our resources is that in the San Francisco Coastal and Bay region we have very limited support from commercial vessel assist companies.  In the Southeast, vessel assist companies like “Sea Tow” are very prevalent and they reduce the amount of Coast Guard resources necessary to respond to boaters needing assistance.

SLD: So you need longer range assets with speed such as the new Sentinel Class Fast Response Cutter?  How do you stand in getting these core assets?

CAPT Stowe:  These cutters will replace the aging 110-foot patrol boats.  Since we have 87 foot Coastal Patrol Boats in San Francisco, we aren’t slated to receive a Fast Response Cutter.

CDR Stuhlreyer: The 87-foot patrol boats are relatively new and they are certainly a much more capable platform than the old 82s were.  However, in 12-14 foot seas, there is a point of diminishing returns.  In this weather a 47-motor lifeboat is our preferred platform.  With a surfman aboard, the Motor Life Boat is capable of operating in up to 30-foot seas and 20 foot breaking surf with 50-knot winds.  These are the very capable boats often featured in TV programs because of their rugged construction and self-righting design.

SLD: What about helos and other assets?

Commander Stuhlreyer: The helos are an excellent platform; however the old tyranny of distance limits our ability to deploy the asset.  We often rely on very robust partnerships with local and state partners who operate vessels and aircraft to help conquer these challenges.

SLD: And after 9/11 you have other missions added to the already demanding law enforcement and Search and Rescue missions.

CAPT Stowe: It’s certainly a challenge for the Multi-Mission Small Boat Stations to train, qualify, and achieve proficiency for an ever increasing set of missions that the Coast Guard has responsibility to execute.  For instance, you have a unit like Station Golden Gate, located just inside the San Francisco Bay.  They’re designated as a surf station, which puts them at the high-end of the training spectrum in terms of the degree of difficulty to obtain the necessary proficiency in order to operate a boat in the most extreme weather environment.  Station Golden Gate is also a level one PWCS unit.

(PWCS stands for Ports, Waterways and Coast Security and is described here.)

There’s only one other Coast Guard Station in Nation that is both a surf station and a level one PWCS station.

SLD: What is a level one?

CAPT Stowe: Level one means they are required to maintain a heightened capability to respond to a homeland security threat or incident.  They plan and execute missions in the homeland security realm, such as patrols, escorts, and security boardings.   In order to do these missions the Station personnel train and qualify with additional weapons including a small boat mounted automatic weapon.The boat operators for this mission are trained to a higher standard in terms of boat tactics and qualification.   Today’s larger small boat station has roughly the same 45-person crew that it had 20 years ago when it only executed Search and Rescue and a little bit of law enforcement.  Today, that mission set includes PWCS.

SLD: So a key demand is different levels of training to do the two sets of missions, Search and Rescue and homeland security?

CAPT Stowe: You can say a platform is a platform that serves multi-missions which is true, however for PWCS, we need the automatic weapon mounted on the boat and a qualified operator standing behind the weapon, and a boat operator who is proficient with a higher level of boat tactics. That model doesn’t work very well for helping a recreational boater who is disabled and adrift or approaching the rocks.  For that mission we need a 47-foot MLB with a trained surfman at the helm.  We really do have to outfit for two separate missions.  All the while the Station is staffed for a single ready boat crew.

SLD: So how are you training for the Homeland Security mission set?

CDR Stuhlreyer: Training for PWCS is complicated on the West Coast because of the large number of marine sanctuaries and environmentally sensitive areas; essentially there are very limited areas to train for this mission.

CAPT Stowe: In the 1990s the Coast Guard would simply go a short distance offshore and we’d train.  Now, because of various regulations and policy we transit 12 miles offshore to conduct weapons training.  However, the operating limitations for the 25 foot Response Boat preclude us from sending it out in seas typically encountered 12 miles off shore in Pacific Ocean.  As a result, I may have a young man or woman standing behind the mounted automatic weapon who hasn’t actually fired the weapon from the 25-ft. Response Boat that they are using to patrol the San Francisco Bay.  In order to meet our training requirements, we typically train 12-miles offshore with the 87-ft Coastal Patrol Boat.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that there is only one area off of Bodega Bay where we don’t have sanctuaries at the 12-mile mark.  All of our offshore training for our AOR occurs in this location, but we now understand there is a legislative proposal to expand the size of the sanctuary to include this area, which would push Coast Guard training further offshore.    From an environmental standpoint, we like the idea that we’re protecting the environment, but we also need to provide adequate training areas, personnel, and rounds to support the required tactical training.

CDR Stuhlreyer: We are experiencing similar challenges with the HH-65 Helicopters when it comes to training for airborne use of force.  The Coast Guard outfitted our helicopters with what we call AUF (airborne use of force) capabilities.  Our aircrews that traditionally flew Search and Rescue missions are now also engaged in special tactics training for the pilots to fly the aircraft, special training to maintain gunner’s qualification, and then they have the same issue with finding areas to train.

CAPT Stowe: To help achieve proficiency for our small boat crews we recently established a regulatory Safety Zone for Use of Force Training in San Pablo Bay.  We did this through a formal rulemaking process that included notice and solicited public comment before a final rulemaking was published.  As a result of that process we now have a designated location in San Pablo Bay where we can train for both airborne and waterborne use of force.  This is a major step forward in our ability to train for the PWCS mission.

SLD: Let us focus again on the assets you have and the operational limits, which they impose.  How far can the 87 go out?

CDR Stuhlreyer: It’s really dependent on what’s happening environmentally.  The weather and sea state limits our search and rescue reach.   It also limits our ability to conduct fisheries law enforcement. We do a lot of the fisheries enforcement work in conjunction California Fish and Game and our partners at the National Marine Fisheries Service, but that cooperation tends to be closer to the coast because of the environmental conditions farther off shore.

SLD: This limits your ability to conduct security, environmental and certainly search and rescue operations significantly. What impact would a new Fast Response Cutter have on operational range?

CAPT Stowe: The FRC would offer double the endurance of the 87-ft CPB and it can operate out to 200 miles effectively.

SLD: Let us talk about your role as Captain of the Port and how one should understand the port within the overall maritime trade system.

CAPT Stowe:  For a port to be successful it’s essential that there is a free flow of commerce; goods and services must flow freely 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. Today, the ports are generally limited by the depths of the channels that serve them. The port of Oakland is the fifth busiest container port in the Nation.  The Army Corp of Engineers dredged the port to 50 feet several years ago, but the Corp is challenged to keep the port at that depth within its current budgetary restraints.  Slowly the controlling depths are being reduced and the amount of cargo that ships can carry is therefore also reduced.

Much of my role as the Captain of the Port involves working with all of the port partners to keep the port functioning at its peak capacity while keeping a watchful eye on safety and security.  Keeping the shipping lanes clear of hazards, keeps the navigation routes open.   When a light goes out on a buoy, it’s replaced. Closing a Harbor and suspending all oil transfers during a tsunami, or restricting access to an area during an oil spill cleanup operation is the responsibility of the Captain of the Port.  Likewise, determining when it’s safe to reopen the port and determining which cargos are most critical to enter port first are some of the many challenging decisions that are made by the Captain of the Ports on a regular basis.

CDR Tama:  An important part of serving as the Captain of the Port is being the facilitator that can bring diverse stakeholders together to help ensure the safety, security, and efficiency of the port.  that the Captain of the Port serves as a central place where the shippers, the environmental advocates, the local governments, and all of the different interest groups with disparate equities come together to resolve complex issues?  There wouldn’t be a single place that hears all those voices, considers all those stakeholders and makes the difficult decisions about what’s going to happen.

SLD: Finally, let us talk about the America’s Cup coming to the Bay Area.

CAPT Stowe:  No one consulted the Coast Guard when they decided to award America’s cup to San Francisco Bay, but as a result of that decision the Coast Guard will establish a restricted area where the oldest trophy in sporting history can be held.  We’ll execute a plan to ensure the movement of ships into and out of the port during the event, host dozens of international megayachts, and oversee spectator safety for 1,000’s of spectator craft.  The race is expected to be second only to the Olympics in its draw of spectators.  It will include approximately 20 days of racing in 2012, and up to 40 days of racing in 2013.  There is a tremendous amount of planning and coordination that has to occur in order to make this happen.  And that planning is seamless to the public.  The Coast Guard will publish a special local regulation through a notice and comment formal rulemaking.

SLD: And presumably, this is on top of everything else you’re doing. And complicates everything else you’re doing

CAPT Stowe: True. The Coast Guard doesn’t receive any additional funds for these types of events.  They are on top of our normal and emergency response operations.

CAPT Bliven: The largest challenge will be to hold the event and keep the Bay operating normally. Notably, the trade system needs to keep functioning normally even though the race is occurring.  The container ships will want to keep transiting normally and the normal users of small boats in the bay will want to operate normally.  And a significant part of the Bay will need to be dedicated to the race.

CAPT Stowe:  We will also take advantage of this opportunity to educate boaters on proper safety procedures since the event will draw a rather large recreational boating population.  We will partner with America’s Cup organizers to get the safety message out via their web page and through advertisements.

(Note: Coast Guard response missions receive much publicity, but its preventive work gets less. For example it has done much to set standards and work with manufactures to make boats much safer, and it does boater education directly and coordinates efforts of several volunteer organizations doing safety training. These programs have been quite successful; deaths in the recreational boating community have been reduced by a factor of about 5 during the past 40 years.)