Preparing for dangerous cargo

Coast Guard Lt. Aaron Renschler from the Sector Anchorage, Alaska, enforcement division dons a protective mask during domestic egress training at Sector Anchorage Sept. 9, 2014. Personnel in the class learned how to properly and quickly use safety equipment in the event of a hazardous material threat. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Shawn Eggert)

Coast Guard Lt. Aaron Renschler from the Sector Anchorage, Alaska, enforcement division dons a protective mask during domestic egress training at Sector Anchorage Sept. 9, 2014. Personnel in the class learned how to properly and quickly use safety equipment in the event of a hazardous material threat. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Shawn Eggert)

As enforcers of America’s maritime laws, Coast Guard boarding teams are typically associated with images of drug and migrant interdiction, monitoring fisheries and boating safety. However, as defenders of U.S. ports and harbors, Coast Guard members must also be prepared to respond to more dire threats to the nation’s security.

Dealing with weapons of mass destruction might not be the first thing people think of when picturing the Coast Guard, but that doesn’t downplay the need for its members to be able to identify and safely react to the presence of dangerous agents discovered in the course of a boarding. To prepare for such an event, members of the Sector Anchorage enforcement division participated in a three-day training course, Sept. 8-11 that familiarized them with the tools necessary to locate and protect themselves from biological, chemical or radiological substances.

Instructors from Joint Experience Training Associates, a civilian company largely made up of former law enforcement and military members with experience in explosives ordnance disposal and other related fields, walked Coast Guard members through search and safety procedures and the use of detection devices and protective equipment during the course. While Coast Guard boarding team members are not trained to handle, remove or dispose of explosive or other hazardous materials, understanding how to safely secure a vessel carrying such deadly cargo is the first step to protecting lives, including their own.

“The Coast Guard is the first line of defense for our country when it comes to securing our coastline,” said William Kain, an instructor for JETA. “It’s important for them to have this training so they can prevent dangerous substances from reaching our shores and so they can protect the lives of civilians and themselves until trained personnel can arrive to remove the threat.”

In addition to operating chemical and radiological detection equipment, enforcement division personnel were shown how to properly use safety gear including disposable hazmat suits, protective masks, gloves and boots. Once hazardous materials are detected, limiting exposure is a key to survival so members were tested on their ability to quickly don their gear in a matter of minutes.

“Boarding teams regularly use four-gas analyzers and other detection equipment while conducting operations, but this was my first time dressing out in a suit with the protective mask,” said Lt. j.g. Victoria Swinghamer, from the Sector Anchorage enforcement division. “It’s an important part of the ports, waterways and coastal security mission to be able to protect ourselves and our shipmates in the event of any potential or imminent attack so learning how and when to use the equipment was the most valuable part of the training.”

Sector Anchorage personnel finished the course with a tabletop scenario and a final evaluation of their proficiency with their safety equipment. The training they received may shield them, their shipmates and those they protect from harm during boarding operations to come.

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