BOSTON—The 25-foot, red-and-gray U.S. Coast Guard response
boat sped across busy Boston Harbor, zipping past ships of all sizes,
from small sailing vessels to giant liquefied natural-gas containers.
As it approached foreign-flagged ships, the heavily armed boat slowed
for a close look, with one of its crewmembers manning an M-240 7.62
mm machine gun on the foredeck.
boat’s crewmembers are part of Marine Safety and Security
Team 91110, a small, specially trained unit assigned to help protect
the city from terrorist attack.
The 76-person unit, known as MSST Boston, is one of 13 such organizations
established at major ports along the nation’s coastlines since
the 2001 assaults against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
MSSTs are quick-reaction forces whose mission is to provide security
for their homeports and to deploy nationwide in response to emerging
threats against other high-priority waterside targets.
The Boston team has helped provide waterborne security for such
national events as September’s United Nations World Summit
in New York City; the 2005 Superbowl in Jacksonville, Fla.; the
G-8 Summit in Brunswick, Ga.; the most recent Democratic Party national
convention in Boston, and the Republican one in New York, said the
team’s planning officer, Lt. Thomas Ottenwaelder.
Other MSSTs have traveled further afield, providing port security
in places such as Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Naval Station Guantanamo
Bay, Cuba. Two teams—one based in New Orleans, La., and another
from Galveston, Texas—participated in relief operations after
Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.
MSSTs are patterned after two other kinds of highly mobile Coast
Guard organizations with very different missions—port-security
units and law-enforcement detachments. Port-security units help
protect Navy assets in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere around the
world, and law-enforcement detachments carry out drug-interdiction
missions from Navy vessels, primarily in the Caribbean Sea and waters
along the Pacific Coast of the Americas.
The MSSTs are trained and equipped specifically to fill security
gaps at strategic U.S. seaports. MSST Boston was stood up in 2003.
Boston was selected as a site, because it is the leading city in
New England—hub of a metropolitan area of 5.8 million people
stretching from Maine to Connecticut. Every year, the city’s
teeming port terminals handle more than 1.3 million tons of general
cargo, 1.5 million tons of non-fuels bulk cargo and 12.8 million
tons of bulk fuel cargo. In 2005, 101 passenger ships are scheduled
Like all MSST personnel, the Boston team members hone their skills
at the Coast Guard’s Special Missions Training Center, which
is located on the Marine Corps’s Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
They learn how to:
It’s important for the public—and the rest of the Coast
Guard—to realize that MSSTs are focused on maritime security,
and not the service’s traditional missions, such as boating
safety, fisheries enforcement, and search and rescue, team members
In Boston, those responsibilities usually are handled by Coast
Guard Station Boston, which was reestablished in 2003 after having
been downsized during a 1996 realignment.
For the MSST, “search and rescue is not our primary mission,”
said Cooper, the executive officer. It’s tertiary.”
One exception is during natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina
and its aftermath. “One of our missions is to respond to natural
disasters,” O’Neill said. “Search and rescue is
part of that.”
MSST Boston includes several elements with specific assignments,
explained the operations officer, Lt. Michael P. O’Neill.
Two waterside detachments specialize in waterborne security. A maritime
law- enforcement and force-protection unit focuses on boarding suspicious
vessels. A dive team conducts underwater searches near ships and
piers for explosives, narcotics, concealed human beings and other
The team has six divers, all graduates of the demanding Navy dive
school in Panama City, Fla., said the divers’ supervisor,
Petty Officer Ron Cooper. They are required to complete a challenging
six-week course, which includes scuba-diving techniques, diving
medicine, recompression-chamber operations and salvage.
“When we find explosives, basically we just mark them and
let somebody else take it from there,” Cooper said. The team
frequently calls in Navy explosive ordnance disposal technicians
from Little Creek, Va. or Newport, Rhode Island. “We also
may call the Rhode Island Sheriff’s Department. They’re
the closest [EOD] asset.”
The divers typically operate in pairs as a “buddy”
system, Cooper said. “The only time we go down alone is when
we’re going after a stricken diver,” he said. Even then
another diver stands by on the surface to render aid, if needed.
A dive tender plans each mission and is on hand to monitor the
operation, communicating with the divers and with the diving supervisor
and using a stopwatch to keep track of how long the divers have
been underwater. The divers are wired for sound so that they can
hear and talk with the tenders on the surface and vice versa. If
electronic communications fail, they fall back to using ancient
technology, pulled hand signals on a rope linking the divers with
topside, Cooper said.
Much of the underwater surveillance is done with a small, remotely
operated vehicle, called the VideoRay Scout, explained Bosun’s
Mate 1st Class Kevin DeBoth.
The VideoRay, manufactured by VideoRay LLC, of Phoenixville, Pa.,
is 14 inches long and equipped with video cameras fore and aft.
One camera shoots in color, the other in black and white. The images
currently are captured in a video recorder, but within a month or
so, the system will record to a laptop computer, DeBoth said.
“It’s a lot more cost effective than relying just on
divers,” he noted. “You even can send it down with the
divers to record what they see and do.”
Learning how to use the device, however, has been a challenge.
“You can learn the basics within four days,” De Both
said, “But it takes a lot of hours to learn how to maneuver
it precisely. We’ve hung it up a few times.”
The divers deploy with all of their gear—including 11 air
tanks—loaded into four 20-foot-long trailers that can be hauled
by trucks or loaded onto ships or HC-130 Hercules transport aircraft.
The maritime law-enforcement and force-protection unit, or MLEFP,
traveled back to the Special Missions Training Center this summer
for a five-week course in advanced boarding tactics and marksmanship,
O’Neill said. This training was more sophisticated than the
basic instruction that all MSST members receive when they join a
team. “It’s more focused, much more in depth,”
he said. “They’re honing their skills through repetition,
in the hands of some very skilled instructors.”
It’s important that those skills be sharp, O’Neill
said, because “their business is boarding.”
Getting the MLEFP members to the vessels that they must board is
part of the job of the waterside detachments, which operate the
MSST Boston is equipped with six Defender-class response boats
that can be deployed on trailers, Coast Guard cutters or Navy ships,
or HC-130s, Ottenwaelder said. The boats were among approximately
700 of such craft that the Coast Guard bought, beginning in 2003,
from Safe Boats International, of Port Orchard, Wash., for a total
of $145 million.
The team can deploy the boats quickly, he noted. “We have
deployed cross-country within hours of notice. Locally, we can do
it within minutes.”
The boats rarely operate alone, explained the unit’s executive
officer, Lt. Eric M. Cooper. “We deploy no less than three
boats at a time,” he said. “We can have four boats in
the water 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Each boat is powered by two 225 HP engines, enabling them to crash
through ocean waves at speeds in excess of 40 knots. Despite the
engines’ power, “they’re nice and quiet,”
said Chief Bosun’s Mate Paul Wells, head of the team’s
Waterside Detachment 2. “They’re four-stroke engines,
not like the old two strokes. We put a lot of wear and tear on them,
and they can take it.”
The team includes two waterside detachments of 24 Coast Guardsmen
operating three boats per detachment, Wells noted. Each boat has
a crew of three. “We’re all cross-trained for tactical
missions. Each crewmember can do the others’ jobs.”
All also are trained to operate their boat’s weapons, Wells
said. Each craft is equipped with machine guns, mounted fore and
aft, with an M-16 7.62 mm rifle and two 12-gauge shotguns stored
inside the cabin on easily accessed racks. One of the shotguns is
configured to fire buckshot. The other uses less-than-lethal rounds.
In addition, crewmembers are armed with M-9 9 mm pistols.
“We’re fully qualified with all weapons,” Wells
Keeping skills sharp amid a busy deployment schedule is “the
tricky part,” he said. Training is conducted during the brief
times between deployments.
One exercise Wells planned to run soon involved boat tactics. “I’ll
have [the boat crews] set out a security zone.”
Such zones are established to protect likely targets from attack.
Examples include liquefied natural gas container ships or storage
facilities, where explosions could cause a major disaster. Entering
a security zone or moving around within it without prior permission
In the exercise, response boats are assigned to patrol the perimeters
of the zone.
“After I get the boats in place, I’ll be back in five
minutes, make a run at them and see how they do,” Wells said.
After the exercise is over, “we’ll debrief them,”
and discuss what went right and what went wrong.”
The crews have to be diplomatic when enforcing the zones. A boat
rushing toward a target “may not be a terrorist getting ready
to attack,” Wells said. “It may just be a bunch of tourists
wanting to take a close look. We have to explain—nicely—that
this is a security zone, and they have to keep away.”
Team members are required to maintain a constant state of readiness,
said Bosun’s Mate 3rd Class Dylan Skidmore. “We have
to be ready to deploy at a moment’s notice and be gone for
an undisclosed amount of time,” he said. Once, he said, he
received four days’ notice for a nine-month deployment. “You
learn to keep everything, all your finances, simple.”