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Cover Story
"We Work Together"
Interview With US Coast Guard: Commander Jim Elliot
By Teresa K. Hernandez

Hello, Commander Elliott. Thank you for joining us today. Could you begin by telling our readers a little bit about your background and how long you’ve been with the Coast Guard?

I joined the Coast Guard in 1985, and began my career as a coxswain of a 44-foot motor lifeboat executing search and rescue and law enforcement missions. After completing my four-year commitment, I returned to college and finished a degree in environmental management. Following graduation, I worked in the private sector for an engineering firm for about three years and then was offered a direct commission in the Coast Guard. As a Coast Guard officer, I have been predominantly focused on response operations and marine safety missions. So all in all, I’ve been on active duty now for over 21 years.

I understand you previously worked with the Gulf Strike Team?

Yes, while serving as the executive officer of the Gulf Strike Team, I had the opportunity to manage numerous marine salvage and oil spill response operations, plus serve in Incident Commander positions during multiple hurricane response and recovery efforts. When the Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened, I initially deployed from my job as the commanding officer of Marine Safety Unit Texas City to support operations in Mobile, Alabama, because I had previously worked in that area with the states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida during Hurricane Katrina. I deployed there to work as the deputy incident commander to help get their organization started. Then I returned to Texas after our own waters and coastline began being impacted.

Does the Coast Guard actually participate in the cleanup procedures of an oil spill, or does it strictly manage the coordination and logistics aspect of the operation?

The Coast Guard serves as the Federal On-Scene Coordinator (FOSC) during oil spill response operations. In this capacity, we oversee the responsible party and direct on-scene assets. In addition to serving as the incident commander and in various management positions, we also have Strike Teams that are equipped with vessels, skimming systems, booms, and various other response equipment to perform the hands-on work in the field. Our Buoy Tenders are also equipped with oil recovery systems. But the majority of what we’re doing is the management side of command and control; we go out and oversee the private contractors, and, right now, there are hundreds of vessels and contractors throughout the Gulf of Mexico working to respond to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Additionally, there are hundreds of aircraft involved in this operation, including the DoD, Coast Guard, and private industry. It’s a massive undertaking and a large-scale command and control effort.

In any major response, we come together in a Unified Command, and it starts with the Incident Command System where we have the FOSC, the on-scene coordinators for each state, and the representatives of the responsible party. For example, in the ongoing Deepwater Horizon response, BP is the responsible party in that command and control structure; however, the Coast Guard continues to serve as the lead federal agency directing the response. Together, we have common objectives, and, based on these objectives, we develop incident action plans that include specific tactical direction to the field. Our Unified Command also includes all of the counties and local governments involved in the response. These entities also have a voice in how the operation is carried out.

That is quite a massive undertaking.

It is, but everywhere I’ve been—we work together. We have contingency plans in place, and all of our response partners meet on a regular basis to coordinate how we will each respond in the event of a crisis. For example, I had already met with my state counterparts in Texas prior to having any on-shore impact from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Together, as a Unified Command, we went out and talked to mayors, county judges, and everyone else involved to prepare them for any potential impact. So by the time tar balls began coming ashore, we were prepared and ready; together we went out and simply cleaned them up. In addition to ensuring the safety of the public, minimizing impacts to the environment, and keeping waterways open, we also worked together to manage any stakeholder and media concerns.

That is great. I am sure everything ran much smoother having everyone on the same page.

Yes, it did. The goal is to bring all of the stakeholders together and incorporate their concerns into the overall response objectives. We have baseline contingency plans in place, so once we have an event to respond to, we bring everyone in together and review the common objectives and create a unified effort. In a synergistic response effort, we must also manage numerous operations simultaneously on multiple fronts. For example, in the Deepwater Horizon response, we have well control, deepwater oil recovery, near-shore on-water surface recovery, and shoreline protection operations. Thousands of trained personnel are deployed to the shorelines, so once the oil washes ashore, it is cleaned up immediately. Not to mention, we are constantly overseeing the general safety of the responders, maintaining waterways and keeping them open, and dealing with myriad stakeholder issues.

The idea is to create a command-and-control structure where you can address everything simultaneously. For example, in a search-and-rescue case, you want to focus on rescuing people as soon as possible, and during Hurricane Katrina that was the priority. As soon as the winds died down, we were out there rescuing people. We rescued over 33,000 people during Katrina. But simultaneously, we had a command-and-control structure that was reopening all of the waterways while we were doing search and rescue. Additionally, over 9.4 million gallons of oil and thousands of hazardous material containers were being cleaned up. It is a big undertaking and very complex, but it is also very exciting. The Coast Guard has the noble mission of saving lives and protecting the environment, and I can’t imagine doing anything else—I really love the work.

In Texas City, you oversee a region of 14,000 square miles along the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf and are responsible for a variety of multi-mission type services—maritime law enforcement and maritime safety in the waterways. I imagine even without an oil spill to contend with, this is very challenging.

You know, it is. In my area of responsibility, I have three ports: Texas City, Galveston, and Freeport, plus 120 miles of the Intra-coastal Waterway and the entrance to the Houston Ship Channel, which is one of the busiest vessel traffic areas in the U.S. and also the nation’s largest petrochemical complex. The area where the Intercoastal Waterway crosses the Houston Ship Channel is also considered one of the most complex shipping intersections in the nation. In addition, we have what we call offshore lightering zones, where the very large oil carriers enter the Gulf of Mexico and “lighter,” or off-load, their oil cargo to smaller tank ships for transport to the refineries in our ports. This is all in addition to our mission of inspecting the mobile offshore drilling units on the Outer Continental Shelf.

We have a staff of about 100 people, and so we’re working pretty hard every day and are on-call 24/7 to respond. In addition to our marine safety missions, we also have homeland security issues to manage. For example, we have a law enforcement team that goes out and boards what we call high-interest vessels that are coming into port. We do three to five boardings per day, and that is every day. So whenever we have a surge operation, or an all-hands-on-deck operation like the Deepwater Horizon response, we are very busy.

That is a lot of traffic in a large region.

It is, but we work closely with all of the different federal agencies, state and local governments, and the maritime industry. Just today, I was at an Area Maritime Security Committee meeting, where we had over 100 people in the industry present, including facilities security managers and the local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. At these meetings, we discuss port security and how we can improve it, and this is a continuous process. When you have a structure like this in place, you know everybody by name, you know where they work, and after you’ve met with them on a regular basis and not in a crisis situation...when a vessel does run aground or there’s a security incident, you’re already accustomed to working with them, and it makes everything a lot easier. That is our goal; the Coast Guard wants to create and maintain cooperative relationships with everyone.

Do these cooperative relationships help streamline the information sharing process?

I think so. In fact, I think it’s one of the Coast Guard’s greatest assets. If you followed the events after Hurricane Katrina, you know we responded immediately. We had already come together and established a Unified Command before the storm even hit. Two years ago, when I was involved in Hurricane Ike in my own ports, again, we all came together in a Unified Command. When we can unite all of our different stakeholders before an event ever happens (when possible), we can begin operating with an action plan in place for a few days. By then, everyone has already agreed on our goals and objectives, and so once the event begins, we can respond, roll out, and go to work. I believe we do have good communications here in the port. We are a small organization, so, almost out of necessity, we have to create a network and form a cooperative collegial environment so that together we can be effective.

What are the biggest challenges you face daily in managing port safety and security?

As a commanding officer, maintaining balance is my biggest challenge. I have three different ports, each with its own distinctive personality, challenges, sets of missions, and stakeholders. For example, in the Port of Galveston we have large cruise ships coming in and out, plus freight vessels. In the Port of Texas City, we have a lot of large refineries, so there are tank barges coming in and out. I must balance my presence and effectiveness among all of the different stakeholders in these ports.

According to our national strategy, the Coast Guard must balance risk, which applies to both marine safety and maritime security. A good example of a marine safety incident is when a ship runs aground. We have to conduct a salvage operation and balance the risks—keep the waterways open, ensure everyone is safe, and try to expedite refloating the vessel safely. We manage all of these risks. In a maritime security operation, we may have a stowaway aboard a foreign vessel that is entering port, so we must send a law-enforcement team offshore and coordinate with other law enforcement agencies in the area to help manage that situation while still bringing the cargo safely into port. Therefore, my biggest challenges lie in creating that balance between my stakeholders while also effectively managing the risks of the port.

As a result of the Deepwater Horizon incident, there have been discussions about changing our policies for offshore drilling. How do you foresee this affecting the Coast Guard and its mission in the Gulf?

National policies are oftentimes driven by catastrophic events. For example, after the Exxon-Valdez incident and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the national contingency plan that we’re currently responding under now created a system of financial liability for tank vessels. As another example, after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the Maritime Transportation Security Act was developed, which expanded our focus on securing ports and waterways. So I think it’s safe to say that there may be an added focus on offshore drilling, offshore safety, and of course response operations and contingency planning. I know policy makers are debating how to address the perceived gaps now, but it’s probably too early to speculate on how that will roll out. However, I do know the Coast Guard is resilient. We’re multi-mission and standing ready for any changes that may come down, so I know we’ll be ready to manage it.

There are some platforms in the Gulf that have been out of operation for at least 10 years or more, and there are concerns that they, too, may be leaking oil. Does the Coast Guard monitor these platforms in any way?

The Coast Guard works with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) in response to offshore oil spills. While the Coast Guard inspects Mobile Offshore Drilling Units that are considered vessels, BOEMRE is responsible for platform inspections and the associated response planning efforts. On the Mobile Offshore Drilling Units, we inspect the vessel’s lifesaving and firefighting equipment, vessel machinery, and structural integrity, for example, while BOEMRE inspects the drilling and production systems, such as the blowout preventers. In short, we work cooperatively to monitor the Outer Continental Shelf and come together in a unified command should we discover a leak.

Now that the roles of the Coast Guard have expanded since its inclusion into the Department of Homeland Security enterprise, has it altered the Coast Guard’s current or future plans for recruiting?

I believe we’re going to stay at about the same level of manning, at this point. We have a structure in place where we have reserve forces, so if a large surge operation arises, we can rely on our reserves to integrate into our command structure as we did during the 9/11 response, Hurricane Katrina, and the ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill cleanup. The Coast Guard is also unique among the other military branches because we have an auxiliary force, which is made up of volunteers. These volunteers do an incredible job of supporting the Coast Guard.

One of the lessons learned from Katrina is the value of having deployable specialized forces to support local commands involved in a large-scale operation. We have specialized teams that can be deployed, such as strike teams or other specialized safety and security teams to respond in a major event. The Coast Guard is structured in a way that ensures we have sustainability to cover all of our various missions, but also to have a surge capacity to handle any large-scale responses.

In a recent interview with Homeland Security advisor Col. Randall Larsen, he told IHS that all agencies—local, state, and federal—need to “posse up” more. Posse up in terms of forming a network of contacts from other agencies, whom you can rely on to provide additional backup, equipment, and support in the event of a crisis. He went on to explain that this is not only extremely critical from an equipment or manpower aspect, but also far more economical for everyone involved, including the taxpayers.

That’s our plan. You know, I’ve been on both sides of that equation before. As a commanding officer during Hurricane Ike, and as a result of my experiences during Katrina and previous hurricanes, I knew before the storm made landfall to call in the posse. So I had my surge capacity ready to respond once the storm made landfall, including the strike team and law enforcement backup.

And when I was on the strike team, I was part of that deployable operations group, and we were the “posse” providing the backup. It’s such a great feeling on both sides of the fence. It’s great to have that backup available when you’re the commanding officer on the front lines, and it’s also a great feeling to be the help that is coming in to assist when things are surging during a big hurricane or a large law enforcement operation.

You mentioned earlier you have a staff of about 100. Is that at each port, or all three of your ports?

That is the three ports in total, all under this one command. However, we also have other commands in the area. For example, we have a small boat station, which is a separate command, and they have several boats, and we have an air station with aircraft that is about 15 miles away. My command focuses primarily on what we call “marine safety,” which involves ship inspections, maritime security, investigating marine casualties, and multi-hazard response operations.

When we have a major response operation, I call on my fellow commanding officers for support. The air station can provide a helicopter to get my law enforcement team offshore, or I can call my fellow commanding officer at the small boat station to launch their small boats. We have a network of various Coast Guard commands in the area that help cover all our missions.

Have you noticed any new changes or trends as to the types of illegal activities or trafficking in your ports?

No, not specifically in the Houston-Galveston area. We may have the occasional stowaway, but we have advance notice on those kinds of situations, and we board the vessel and deal with it before it comes into port. Our goal is to have a layered defense in place so we will prevent any security or safety concerns before they can enter the port. The Coast Guard has various authorities, we have the Captain of the Port Authority where we can order vessels to stay offshore, and then we have the Federal Maritime Security Coordinator authority, where we can pull in different law enforcement entities to do a multi-agency mission.

The Coast Guard has a good risk-based decision-making process. In our screening process, we evaluate multiple factors, including where the vessel is coming from, their last port of call, the crew members onboard, etc. We then designate which vessels are “high-interest vessels” based on these factors. We send law enforcement teams out to board the high-interest vessels to ensure they are safe and secure before they enter the port. We may have a high volume of traffic, but we also have a good system for controlling it.

What about criminal activities in international waters—incidents on cruise ships, private vessels, etc.? Is this your jurisdiction also?

We work closely with the Federal Bureau of Investigation regarding crimes on the high seas. We do what are called compliance examinations on foreign vessels coming in from a safety perspective and inspect cruise ships when they come into port. But again, we’re working cooperatively with other agencies in regards to the security side, and then my command focuses primarily on the marine safety side to make sure that the lifesaving systems and the firefighting systems onboard these vessels are working properly to ensure the safety of life.

You hold numerous advanced credentials in hazardous materials management and environmental management. How have these credentials complemented your career, body of knowledge, or assisted you in your current position?

I’ve maintained a number of credentials throughout my career, and the Coast Guard refers to this as “lifelong learning.” It’s one of the attributes or traits that the Coast Guard values in our organization. Not only in regards to credibility within our own organization and for promotions, but it has also expanded my opportunities to network with leaders in academia, industry, and other non-governmental agencies that I otherwise would not have had an opportunity to work with. For instance, I was requested by the State Department to go to Africa to teach a class on the Incident Command System, because I’m a Type 1 Incident Commander and I’ve got the background in response operations. That would not have happened without the credentials. As I told you, we do a lot of inter-agency work, and when we come together in Unified Command, a lot of folks may not understand the military rank structure, but they recognize “certified hazardous materials manager,” for example, when I’m leading a hazardous material response operation, or that I’m a Type 1 Incident Commander. So they’ll say, “Oh, OK, I can go to this guy, he knows what he’s talking about in this regard.” This is very helpful, and I believe it works well when connecting the federal and private sectors because it keeps us all on the same page and speaking the same language.

In the Coast Guard, we work closely with both the maritime industry and academia. For example, we meet regularly as an Area Committee to focus on improving our ability to respond to oil and hazardous material releases and on ways we can improve our contingency plans. I work with a lot of folks there who have similar credentials and we discuss these areas and even meet outside of work on those issues.

Are there any key areas or fields that the Coast Guard encourages advanced credentials or training in?

In the past few years since we were integrated into the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11, we have increased our focus on port security issues and created specific job categories, including Maritime Enforcement and Intelligence. As a result, we are now a part of the intelligence community, which is a major step forward in our organization. As we discussed, I was part of the establishment of the Deployable Operations Group and played a part in the creation of the Coast Guard’s maritime enforcement specialists, basically fully dedicated law enforcement officers. Before this, we had what we called different “ratings.” You could be a mechanic or a boat driver, but then you would also have collateral duty as a boarding officer or a law-enforcement officer. As part of this evolution, the organization saw the value in creating more specific job categories for just being a law-enforcement officer or intelligence specialist. As far as looking at credentialing, I know homeland security, intelligence, and law enforcement are among the three big ones, and of course my background in environmental science and in oil and hazardous response operations is also very valuable.

The intelligence field is growing rapidly. I recently read that intelligence analysts rank 9th out of 50 for the top careers of the future. How are the Coast Guard’s intelligence specialists collecting intelligence? In the field from boarding vessels, or are they collecting it through other means of technology?

We do both. We have field intelligence teams that are actively collecting intelligence and analyzing it, and this provides more situational awareness of the risks entering our ports, which is important to the incident commanders and commanding officers in the field. One of the best things about the Coast Guard is that they have programs they can send you for what we call industry training or advanced education. A person can earn a master’s degree, or work with different agencies, and now these opportunities have expanded into the intelligence field. In my career, I’ve had the opportunity to get my master’s degree in environmental policy, and then I received another degree from the U.S. Naval War College. The Coast Guard is focused on ensuring it has the most highly trained individuals on the job.

I know it hasn’t appeared to be an issue in Texas or anywhere near the United States, but we have seen a rise in piracy in international waters in some regions. As we all know, criminal and terrorist organizations will often evolve their own modus operandi or adapt the same terror tactics as other organizations that they view as “successful,” so in terms of managing our own homeland security and preventing terrorism in U.S. ports and waterways, do these incidents of international piracy concern the Coast Guard?

I know at the strategic level the Coast Guard is heavily engaged in discussions about how to prevent and respond to piracy. On a national level, we do have a structure in place, should we ever have to respond to a terrorist event or a piracy incident in our own waters. In an event of this nature, we would work together to respond to the incident alongside various federal, state, and local agencies. We plan for that, we exercise that, and we have partnerships in place for that. We also have tactical law-enforcement teams that go out with the U.S. Navy on a regular basis to board vessels, and they are prepared to respond. Fortunately, in the Houston-Galveston area where I work, we haven’t had to respond to any piracy incidents. But I do understand the structure that’s in place, and we have trained to respond should the need arise.

There are many complex issues facing homeland security today: terrorism, preparedness, and managing response efforts to both natural and man-made events. What are some of the challenges the Coast Guard faces?

The Coast Guard has been around since 1790, and as I said before, we are resilient. It is in our culture to adapt and to respond. Therefore, we can adapt and respond to just about anything that comes along. We do have the challenges of building capacity and the size of our organization. It is always a challenge to balance the missions effectively. We have major initiatives to replace our deepwater fleet, the Coast Guard cutters, and our aircraft, and to stay on the cutting edge of technology, so we’re focused on that.

Since Katrina and 9/11, we’ve been called out to be a national leader in response operations. As you know, Admiral Allen is the national incident commander for Deepwater Horizon, and he also led the Hurricane Katrina response. Because of our ability to work effectively throughout the federal, state, and local governments, we are fairly unique. When you think about local responder scenarios, you think about the fire department and the police department, but a lot of people also think of the Coast Guard because we’re in their hometown and we’re available to respond. We are one of the first responders, but we are also at the federal level, and have a strategic leadership role. In the future, because of our expertise and proven effectiveness, we will probably be called upon to lead more national response operations, and with that always comes many challenges. But we will continue to integrate the different agencies and respond effectively, and that is what I love about the Coast Guard—you never get bored. There is always a variety of missions to do, and there will always be new challenges and great leadership.

Keeping up with technology requires a constant effort and continuous education and training.

True. Internally, our organization strives to maintain our own assets and stay on the cutting edge of technology, but also one of the things we do here is vessel inspections. Maintaining our ability to stay ahead of latest vessel designs, propulsion systems, and navigational systems requires advanced technical skills. One of our strategic objectives is to expand our marine safety performance capabilities, so we are expanding our internal capabilities by creating more civilian positions and bringing in the expertise of commercial mariners. By allowing civilians to do more of this technical work, it enables us to spend more time on the vessel inspections realm of the maritime industry. Also, in the event of a maritime accident and casualty, we would be able to do an effective and thorough investigation, which can help us learn more about preventing future accidents.

The Coast Guard is increasing internal support by increasing the roles and opportunities available in civil service?

Correct. We already have a great civilian corps that works side by side with its uniformed counterparts in the Coast Guard organization, and we want to continue to supplement our military structure and our rank structure by drawing in more expertise from the private sector. This will help expand our organization’s capabilities to effectively inspect vessels and conduct marine casualty investigations, for example, while also providing continuity of operations.

In the event of a war, does the Coast Guard merge with or support the Navy, or does it remain part of that outer layer of protection around the ports?

Yes, as one of the military services the Coast Guard has historically joined with the U.S. Navy and the other armed forces during times of war. In one of my previous positions, I served as an operations officer on the Deployable Operations Group, and we managed port security units that are actively engaged in port security operations overseas and in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Additionally, our Coast Guard cutters and expeditionary forces are also currently doing joint Department of Defense operations as we speak. So we have teams deployed that are integrated and working with the U.S. Navy and other military organizations; that is one of the reasons why our officers attend the War Colleges. We send officers to the Naval War College, the Marine War College, the Army, and Air Force, so that we can effectively integrate within the Department of Defense—not only in times of war, but on a day-to-day basis.

Wow, the Coast Guard is very diverse. Sounds like it’s involved in a little bit of everything.

We are. And that’s why I love the work. I love the different challenges and missions, and the overall strategic missions of saving lives, protecting the environment and property, and keeping the waterways open. You don’t find many jobs that can offer those kinds of job descriptions.

And not only that…you’re also on the beach! Everybody wants a vacation to the beach, and you get to show up for work there every day!

Yes, we’re on the beach, it’s a great thing. [joint laughs]

Thank you so much for taking time out of your very busy schedule to sit down and visit with us, Commander. It was a pleasure speaking with you today. Thank you!

Well, thank you so much, it was great visiting with you, too.


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