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Public safety marine services: Issues, threats and recent incidents

06 Jul 2020 12:51 PM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Lawrence Nolan, Ph.D., Program Manager, Capstone Corporation, IPSA Member

In the United States, public safety organizations have bodies of water within their jurisdictions that present hazardous and enforcement issues that need to be managed. 

In accordance with the U.S. Geological Survey, the surface of the U.S. is covered by 264,837 square miles of water or 7 percent of the surface area of the nation. In addition, the United States Coast Guard Publication 3-0 Operations identifies the U.S. Marine Transportation System that includes 95,000 miles of coastline, with 361 ports and 12,000 miles of an of interconnected system of inland rivers and intracoastal waterways.

These bodies of water, in or around states and municipalities, take the form of an ocean, gulf, bay, sound, inlet, lake, canal, reservoir, river, stream, creek, swamp, wetland or pond. Given the varying types of bodies of water, public safety organizations need to consider several safety, environmental and enforcement issues.

Issues, policy considerations

An important governance function in a jurisdiction is addressing public safety aspects for the bodies of water that are within its boundaries. This includes mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Below are examples of hazards:

  • Meteorological (severe storm, hurricane)
  • Hydrologic (flood, storm surge, tsunami)
  • Technologic (fires, toxic releases)

In addition to managing hazards, public safety organizations are responsible for the enforcement of laws and regulations applicable to bodies of water in the jurisdiction. These actions allow public safety to manage commercial and recreational boating, natural resources, pollution, crimes, critical infrastructure, search, rescue and recovery.

Multi-agency coordination
In many instances, public safety management is a joint effort. Federal, state and local governments coordinate and collaborate in managing the water in and around the U.S. Coordination and communications between and within each level is key to address management responsibilities. The sharing of public safety resources in the form of mutual aid agreements allow for economical management solutions.

Below is a list of organizations commonly involved with the with coordination, planning and management of various bodies of water:

  • U.S. Department of Homeland Security (U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection, Federal Emergency Management Agency)
  • U.S. Department of Transportation
  • U.S. Department of Interior
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Marine police and rescue
  • Fish and wildlife
  • Environmental protection
  • Natural resources
  • Search and rescue
  • Fire departments  

Each entity must manage and balance risks, resources, personnel, safety, enforcement of laws and regulations and other factors.

2020 incidents in bodies of water

To appreciate how public safety is managed across the nation, public safety incidents on bodies of water in May and June 2020 are provided below from news organizations.

  • A massive fire on San Francisco Pier 45 in May 2020 required 45 fire engines to extinguish the flames. San Francisco Fireboat 3 was used to protect the historic WW II ship, Jeremiah O’Brien, which was moored at the pier as reported by KRON4.  
  • In May 2020, Prime Patriot reported that Virginia swift water rescue crews safely evacuated 20 hikers trapped in a flash flood caused from a heavy rain storm.
  • In Connecticut, the Fairfield Fire Department Engine 1 and Marine 217 responded to a kayaker who fell off his boat and became separated without a lifejacket. A drone was launched to locate the kayaker who swam to rocks offshore and was rescued in May 2020. The Bridgeport Fire and Police Marine units also responded to the incident and were in coordination with the U.S. Coast Guard according to the Connecticut Post.
  • A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter from Traverse City, MI rescued a kayaker that had fallen from his boat in the Georgian Bay off Ontario Canada in May 2020 as reported by
  • Detroit News reported that the US Customs and Border Patrol stopped a boat and Canadan ma June 2020.
  • Eight Jacksonville, FL firefighters were injured from an explosion while fighting a fire aboard a cargo ship docked at a pier on Blount Island. Approximately 150 personnel, numerous engines, and three fireboats from the Jacksonville Fire Department were involved in extinguishing the fire according to FireRescue1.
  • A 30-foot vessel radioed a mayday while taking on water in the Grand Traverse Bay of Lake Michigan in June 2020. The U.S. Coast Guard dispatched a ship and helicopter to the scene and were joined by another boater to rescue the 10 passengers before the boat sank according to the AP.
  • Seattle Police responded in June 2020 to a suspicious bag on the shore of Elliot Bay according to Fox News. The police found human remains in the bag and dispatched a police boat to the area which recovered another bag containing human remains floating in the bay.

Public safety management responsibilities for the waters of the U.S. is a coordinated effort of federal, state and local governments working together to allow for commerce to flow freely, preservation of natural resources, and safe commercial and recreational boating.

The U.S. Coast Guard is a leader on the nation’s waters and exercises unique capabilities as a member of the U.S. DHS and one of the six armed forces of the U.S. Department of Defense.  Its missions are to protect those on the sea, protect against threats from sea, and protect the sea itself as addressed in United States Coast Guard Publication 3-0 Operations.

Ensuring public safety on the waters in and around the United States is a collaborative effort requiring vigilance and collaboration.

About the Author

Lawrence Nolan, Ph.D. is a Program Manager for Capstone Corporation, retired from the Department of the Army and U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the USCG Auxiliary. 

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