Since 9/11/2001, the MSTs’ work has taken on a more significant meaning with regard to our nation’s security and safety. They are responsible for ensuring facilities and vessels meet provisions of the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) treaty and the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) code, a 2004 amendment to the SOLAS treaty. Both internationally-endorsed documents prescribe the minimum security requirements for ships, ports and governmental agencies. They also outline the responsibilities of governments, shipping companies, shipboard personnel and port/facility personnel to “detect security threats and take preventative measures against security incidents affecting ships or port facilities used in international trade.” MSTs also work to ensure compliance with provisions of the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA), U.S. legislation enacted in 2002 that established a framework to improve protections for the nation’s ports, waterways and vessels against potential terrorist attacks.
Inspecting vessels and shoreside facilities are two major components of MST work and, although both require attention to detail and a thorough understanding of local, national and international laws and policy, there is a definite distinction between the two.
MSTs assigned to Port State Control duty conduct examinations of foreign ships that enter U.S. ports to ensure they are properly documented and safe to be operated in U.S. waters. The examinations also verify the captain and crew’s ability to perform their duties.
“We check documentation and examine the ship. We go to the bridge to check the navigation equipment. We make sure the steering mechanism is operating properly and go to the engine room to ensure there are no hazards that might hurt the crew. We make sure there are no cracks in the hull. We do lifesaving drills to ensure the crew has been trained and knows how to respond in the event of an emergency,” explains Gray. “At the core, we ensure there’s nothing that’s going to cause problems at sea or pose a threat in a U.S. port.”
“All oil, passenger and cargo vessels are inspected annually and are also spot-checked at irregular intervals to ensure safety standards are met. Port state control is a worldwide program,” adds James. “Each country is responsible for its own vessels and U.S. ships get similar inspections when they enter other countries’ ports.”
MSTs assigned to smaller duty stations may perform a variety of duties, while those assigned to a larger unit are likely to have a very specific set of responsibilities. “During my assignment to Sector Portland, Ore., I did vessel inspections for two years straight and it can get repetitious,” Gray says, “but that monotony is a sign that folks aboard those ships are doing what they’re supposed to do. And I tell my students that when they find a ship that’s not up to standards, it should remind them of their purpose.
“On some level, we represent the crew when we’re doing these inspections. Some students have asked why we’re working to protect foreigners, but really we’re also protecting our fellow Coast Guardsmen,” she continues. “It’s important for us to do our job properly so that Search and Rescue teams won’t have to be called out in the middle of the night or in bad weather to do theirs. We’re protecting our USCG crews from potential danger.”
Inspecting U.S.-flagged vessels is most often done by Coast Guard commissioned and warrant officers, but enlisted MSTs do examine some commercial vessels owned and registered in the United States.
“Some MSTs are qualified as Commercial Fishing Vessel Examiners and Towing Vessel Examiners,” explains James. “The Coast Guard sees exams and inspections differently, mostly because of the applicable laws and authorities. Under current U.S. law, fishing and towing vessels are not required to be inspected, but we offer courtesy exams to ensure they are maintained, operated and staffed to minimize injury or environmental impact.”
Such exams are voluntary, but it’s in an owner’s best interest to invite the Coast Guard to do them, James says. “Boats that meet the exam criteria display a decal, which can reduce the owner’s insurance premiums. It’s also a boon to business for a company to say their fleet is ‘USCG approved’ and the decal also reduces the likelihood they’ll be stopped for a random spot check.”
More senior MSTs can also qualify as inspectors of U.S. cargo ships and passenger vessels, but it’s a very narrow niche and only those who possess the technical aptitude and interest will do these types of inspections, says James. “There is a domestic inspections branch in every Coast Guard sector, but enlisted MSTs play a very small role in that type of duty.”
While MSTs work to ensure foreign cargo and cruise ships and other foreign-flagged vessels meet national and international safety and security requirements, MSTs are also responsible for ensuring waterfront facilities meet similar standards. They oversee safety and security at federally regulated facilities, such as oil terminals; storage facilities for petroleum, propane and other hazardous gases; cruise ship terminals and container terminals.
“Many of the products we use every day come into our country by water and come ashore at a port facility. Refined petroleum is an obvious example. There are specific operations and security plans for the transfer of these materials,” explains MSTC Jeff Dutcher, the Facility Compliance Branch Chief at the St. Petersburg, Florida, Prevention Office. “The vulnerabilities of the facility are examined and each facility must have a plan for meeting code and mitigating those vulnerabilities. If a facility isn’t in compliance with the security plan, it’s our job to intervene. For example, if they say they’re going to do a 100-percent ID check and they don’t, we cite them. Oil terminal personnel are required to test pipes annually to ensure they can withstand the pressures necessary to transfer the oil from the ship to the terminal. If those tests aren’t being run, that’s a violation. If we test and find leaks, those leaks must be repaired and retested before the terminal can resume operations. During my seven or eight years of doing facilities work, I’ve also done safety and security inspections on deep-draft vessels. It’s similar to doing facilities inspections, just on a moving platform.”