How the Coast Guard keeps New York Harbor safe from terror

Posted: 9:31 PM, May 21, 2014
Updated: 2014-06-03 14:20:55-04

NEW YORK (PIX11) — The discipline is known as outsmarting the terrorists, taking the right counter-terrorism measures to thwart any attempt to attack our shores again.

We’ve learned many lessons since the attacks of 9/11. We’re a lot smarter and a lot more vigilant, particular here in New York, a city that remains the terrorists target of choice.

Our vast harbor, the third largest in the nation, would appear to be most vulnerable, but as I learned during a visit with the coast guard last week, that harbor is a lot safer than you might think.

Coast Guard gunboats with precision marksman at the ready is one line of defense, as are armed officers who randomly patrol ferry boats crisscrossing the harbor. Spot boardings of vessels before they enter the harbor keep us safe from unwanted cargo and trained eyes monitor 1400 daily vessel movements in the Port of New York and New Jersey.

Lt. Commander Bill Walsh Bill Walsh, the commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard in New York, notes, “This is really a big port. There are 250 sensitive areas. We can’t be everywhere so we have to put our resources where we’re most visible and where risk level is highest.”


(Photo: Getty Images)

The risk level has always been high on ferry boats because they are considered soft targets, vessels without defenses. Sinking one of them could put as many as 5,000 people in the water. Some 75,000 people a day ride the ferry between Staten Island and Manhattan — 21 million a year. Usually there is little of no incidence.

The Coast Guard is here to make sure it stays that way.

During peak periods, 45 foot Coast Guard response boats ride shotgun alongside the Staten Island Ferry, providing a reassuring presence against any would-be attack. The bow-mounted 240 bravo machine gun is capable of firing 650 rounds per minute. Walsh says the Coast Guard is trying to put out a visible deterrent. “We try to provide a level of security around the ferry to make sure the public knows we’re out there and terrorists know we’re out there as well.”

The external presence compliments the internal team of uniformed officers who patrol the decks and key areas of the ferry, like the engine room.

As they crisscross the decks, the Coast Guard team looks for passengers lurking around or filming in areas where they shouldn’t be. And they’re ever vigilant looking for backpacks or other items left behind.

In addition to their weapons, the boarding team is equipped with radiation detectors as well.

Since 9/11, there have been threats against ferry systems and at least one bomb scare on the Staten Island Ferry.

The Coast Guard knows it has a daunting challenge knowing full well that New York remains the number one target for terrorists. At stake, some 60 million lives, the number of people who pass through here each year either cruise ships or ferry boats.

Petty Officer First Class George Spriggs notes that the biggest challenge in the harbor is the amount of traffic and knowing that anything can happen at any time and being at the right place.

The Coast Guard utilizes a mathematical formula that uses algorithms to determine where they should make their random moves and where the threat level is highest.

Coast Guard Sector New York, based on Staten Island, monitors 1400 vessel movements in the port each day. Since 9/11 all vessels coming here are required to give 96 hour notice of arrival.

A list of crew and cargo aboard must be provided. Containers are supposed to be inspected at the point of origin. And without notice, the Coast Guard sends out units to make random inspections aboard vessels at anchor some 12 miles offshore, often a 6 to 8 member boarding team will board the ship in the middle of the night.

They make about 400 boardings a year.

In addition to everything else, the Coast Guard is also looking after our infrastructure, doing periodic checks to make sure our bridges and iconic historic sites are safe.