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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Dec. 19, 2022

Building partnerships through required area exercises to keep the port safe

By Lt. Antoine Adams, Sector Long Island Sound

Scores of uniformed officers, service members, and industry agents eagerly participated in Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound’s (SLIS) active shooter/active threat preparation program. These dedicated professionals represented equities across local, state, and federal agencies, as well as industry partners who all collaborated to exercise and codify procedures necessary to secure a threat on a high-capacity ferry. What is remarkable about this initiative is that SLIS engaged port partners to conduct complex functional exercises moving boats and people not just once, but during three separate occasions, spanning a seven-month period. 

Partnerships are critical to meeting active shooter/active threat response objectives. “Our robust relationship with port partners, both in Connecticut and New York, are what allow us to successfully plan and execute large scale drills like these. Moreover, working with partners enables us to rapidly respond and address any incident in the maritime environment,” said Lt. Miles Miller, SLIS Enforcement Division Chief. These critical partnerships are an integral part of Sector Commander, Capt. Eva Van Camp’s strategic vision for maritime security operations and coordination within the Connecticut and Long Island region.  Effecting that vision takes creativity, hard work, and lots of preparation.

SLIS Emergency Management and Force Readiness (EMFR) division worked with the Enforcement division to design drill(s) that would test law enforcement’s ability to embark a ferry while underway. Sector engaged its Area Maritime Security Committee and other port partners to socialize and plan for the event. The first drill took place in April 2022 and involved 11 partner agencies, 10 surface assets, and the Grand Republic, a 280-foot vehicle and passenger ferry operated by the Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Steamboat Company (BP/PJ).  Although a seemingly simple concept, this was the first time the sector tested this capability. This evolution provided some valuable lessons learned; most notably, the challenges with transferring personnel from a smaller response boat to an underway ferry. 

Next in October 2022, SLIS again brought partners together to conduct its Area Maritime Security Training and Exercise Program (AMSTEP) drill, building upon the previous drill and applying the lessons learned. SLIS EMFR collaborated with Suffolk County, New York Police Department, and the BP/PJ, simulating an active shooter event aboard a pier side ferry followed by a unified command discussion. In total, 133 combined participants moved through various stations aboard the PT Barnum, a 300-foot BP/PJ ferry, for tactics and medical training, before culminating in law enforcement personnel engaging with an opposing force while navigating friendly forces and victims simulated by actors. 

 Lastly, one week after its AMSTEP drill, SLIS used the embarkation drill concept to test embarkation capabilities for the other major ferry company in the area, the Cross Sound Ferry (CSF) company. This time 13 agencies provided 10 response boats and tested embarkation procedures on CSF’s Cape Henlopen, a 328-foot WWII naval vessel converted to a vehicle and passenger ferry. 

“It’s important that we exercise our capabilities and introduce additional variables, such as the differences between ferries at various companies and what the procedures look like under different conditions. This way we are able to hone our skills and provide the best response possible,” SLIS’ exercise planner Phil Mikan said. 

These focused exercises have already paid huge dividends toward improving shared response capability. Most notably during two separate bomb threats made against the ferry system in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in September 2022. Using lessons learned from the exercises and the planning leading to the exercises, SLIS was able to quickly engage with partners, adjudicate the threat, including Bridgeport Police Department (BPD) making an arrest, and successfully resolve the incidents with minimal impact to the ferry system. Prior to the embarkation drills, BPD had never attempted to board the ferry while underway. Having previously participated in the drill, BPD gained the experience and confidence to embark the ferry while it was still underway with bomb techs and canine explosive detection teams to clear the vessel.  

“Without the drill that we participated in with the Bridgeport Ferry System, responding to such a scenario would have been completely untested and undoubtedly would have further delayed resuming the ferry’s operation,” Van Camp said. “Making partnerships a priority and conducting regular exercises significantly bolsters our response capability and ultimately helps to make the maritime transportation system more resilient.” 

Sector Long Island Sound exercises its emergency response capabilities with its port partners on a regular basis, honing skills as well as relationships.