Port security now an organized, regional effort
Thirteen years ago today, when the country went on alert following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, first responders in the region were suddenly responsible for watching over potential targets including a military base, nuclear power plants and a deepwater port. But they found they were ill-equipped to coordinate with one another.
The attacks set in motion great changes that today have led to a better equipped and more highly trained team of responders.
One of those teams is the New London Port Area Marine Group, an organized effort by municipalities, tribes and private companies from southeastern Connecticut that jointly secured millions of dollars in funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Port Security Grant Program. Members say they've done it by thinking regionally.
The money obtained through the grants has paid for equipment ranging from surveillance cameras and fences at State Pier in New London to patrol boats for police and fire departments, such as a $700,000 state-of-the-art firefighting boat at the Mystic Fire Department.
Retired U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Scot Graham, now employed as a civilian port security specialist for the Coast Guard Captain of the Port for Long Island Sound, said the outcome is better regional cooperation that should help to convey a sense of safety and security to citizens they serve.
As deputy commander for U.S. Coast Guard Sector New York, Graham said the last thing he thought about before falling asleep at night was the vulnerability of the Staten Island Ferry and its 75,000 daily passengers to a terrorist attack. He now helps others prepare for similar high-risk marine transportation system scenarios as adviser to the New London Port Area Marine Group.
Within just a few-miles radius are State Pier, passenger ferry services, Interstate 95, Amtrak rail lines, Millstone Power Station, a casino, the Naval Submarine Base and submarine builder Electric Boat.
The marine group is a subcommittee of Sector Long Island Sound Area Maritime Security Committee and of the state's Region 4 Regional Emergency Planning Team. Members represent municipalities, state agencies and private industry such as Electric Boat.
The marine group was officially chartered in 2011, "to serve as a confederation of local public and private sector organizations sharing responsibility for protecting the New London port area and the surrounding marine transportation system from a wide range of natural and man-made hazards/risks."
From a $1 billion annual Homeland Security appropriation, the port security grant program distributed $100 million to port areas nationally in the last fiscal year, down significantly from more than $500 million distributed 10 years ago, Graham said. Beginning in about 2008, port security funds helped pay for patrol boats for police departments in Norwich, Groton, Stonington and Waterford as well as the Mystic fire boat.
A key factor in obtaining those funds was the realization that the Coast Guard needed trained partners with better vessels than the 20-year-old boats patrolling the waters at the time, Graham said. Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound is the largest operational field command in the nation and assumes command during any major incident on the water.
"When it comes to risk, it's a very challenging area," Graham said. "That's where the port partners come in. It's not just security. It's accidents, crime or natural disasters."
The Coast Guard assesses grant applications for need before they are approved and sent to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a second layer of approval, Graham said.
Waterford Police Chief Murray Pendleton, co-chairman of the Port Area Marine Group, said when the town secured a $520,000 port security grant for a patrol boat and associated costs,it was as a regional asset to be shared with East Lyme and potentially other towns.
Pendleton said Waterford has long been involved in regional planning through the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant Security Working Group and by participating in drills associated with a potential incident at Millstone, "both accidental and otherwise."
"In order to participate in these (port security) grants, there had to be an operational plan put together that dealt with a multitude of issues like hurricanes, fires, hazardous spills," Pendleton said. "Working with the Coast Guard and others, we were able to do that. It's all about working together and utilizing one's resources to provide the appropriate protection measures."
Regional thinking has led to cooperation in planning for such events as New London's Sailfest and training with partners such as Cross Sound Ferry, which has also benefitted from federal grants. Boats obtained through grant funds, aside from regular enforcement patrols funded by the towns, are often called on for special events.
Capt. Jeff Dziedzic, owner of TowBoatUS and co-chairman of the Port Area Marine Group, said training has been essential in getting agencies, even volunteers such as the Coast Guard Auxiliary, together in joint responses.
Last year, Dziedzic said he was involved in a simulated scenario involving passenger rescue from a ferry. It was an opportunity to pull alongside the ferry and find out what it would take to tow a life raft.
"It gets you thinking when you're dealing with hundreds of passengers," he said. "How do you get these people off? What is it like to drive up next to a ferry? Where are you going to take them?"
Training funds may be obtained by one agency acting as the fiduciary agent, but funds are distributed to partners in the group, Dziedzic said.
As an example, he said, Groton Town police, who used a portion of a $433,000 federal grant to buy their boat, also secured funding for dry suits for winter operations. The suits were distributed to members of the marine group. Groton Town Police Capt. Steven Sinagra said whenever training grant money is obtained, the training is open to all members of the marine group. That way, he said, different agencies are trained to the same level.
The Norwich Police Department last year obtained training money that was then shared with the New London Fire Department. In October, New London Fire Chief Henry Kydd organized a harbor incident marine response training exercise for land-based firefighters. The training was offered to neighboring departments and, with cooperation from the Fishers Island Ferry District, took place aboard the ferry Munnatawket.
Graham said there are numerous other examples of towns working together and sharing federal funds, such as Waterford's effort to bring together a regional dive team.
With the purchase of expensive regional items such as patrol boats - which most municipalities would never otherwise have - Graham predicted future federal funding will be aimed at maintaining those items and providing further training.
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