Auxiliarists Serve As ‘Force Multiplier’ For U.S. Coast Guard

The all-volunteer Coast Guard Auxiliary was originally formed in 1939; over the years, its mission became primarily recreational boater safety and public education. But that all changed dramatically in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary stepped up to serve as a “force multiplier” for the active-duty Coast Guard.

Auxiliarists are given extensive training and now are authorized to participate in most Coast Guard missions, with the exception of law enforcement and military missions. Auxiliarists are free to choose from the many missions that interest them.

For example, small Auxiliary boats, called facilities, train with Coast Guard helicopters operating out of the Belle Chasse, La., airbase to simulate lifting injured personnel from vessels. Some flotillas are part of the first-responder groups for search and rescue (SAR) cases, and others provide security for regattas and similar boating events.

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Soon after 9/11, Erston Reisch was among Auxiliarists recruited by activated Reservist Jimmy Duckworth to provide a presence on the docks where cruise ships would land to disembark and load passengers. It was a weekly commitment. Mostly they would walk the docks, but occasionally they would observe ship dockings from rooftops of nearby buildings, changing up their routine.

Still others assisted at the Regional Exam Center (REC), doing clerical work and taking fingerprints of mariners seeking Coast Guard licenses. At the New Orleans REC, when the Coast Guard implemented the sector system in 2005, there was a 19-week delay between a professional mariner dropping off forms for a license renewal and the first evaluator looking at that paperwork.

When incoming Capt. Frank Paskewich assumed command of the newly formed Sector New Orleans and discovered the delay, he said that was unacceptable. Within six months, license applications were reviewed no later than the day after submittal, with Auxiliarists providing support.

Bad Karma And Fishing Boats

Beginning in the 1970s, pilots on the Lower Mississippi River and vessel operators offshore complained about what were identified as Vietnamese fishing boats cutting in front of other vessels without making passing arrangements using VHF radios.

The Vietnamese boats were identified, in part, by a stylized eagle painted between the gunwales and the rub rails that run for the length of the boats, about a foot lower than the gunwales.

Problems with the Vietnamese fishing boats became such a concern that the Associated Branch (Bar) Pilots, whose route has them piloting foreign-flag deep-draft vessels between the Southwest Pass sea buoy and Pilottown, about Mile 12, paid to print and laminate fliers with English writing on one side and Vietnamese on the other, explaining that passing arrangements need to be made on VHF Channel 67 on the Lower Mississippi River and Channel 16 outside of the Line of Demarcation.

Coast Guard Auxiliarists were instrumental in the legwork of posting the fliers at fish buying docks, fuel docks, marinas and elsewhere where the Vietnamese boats tied up.

“The adults frequently ran from us because we wore our ODU (dark blue) uniforms, but we talked to a lot of the kids,” said Karen Reisch of Flotilla 4-9, who walked the docks putting up posters. Along with her husband, Erston, the Reisches learned a Vietnamese fishing boat that is not catching much is thought to have “bad karma.” To get rid of the bad karma, a Vietnamese fisherman will steer his boat in front of a larger vessel, passing the bad karma to the other vessel.

“Steering in front of a larger vessel was a cultural thing,” Karen Reisch said she learned. “It wasn’t just failure to maintain situational awareness; they did it on purpose.”

The other thing the Reisches learned was the eagle was painted between the rub rail and gunwale because “an eagle always returns to land, and it pointed the boats to safe harbor.”

Once the Auxiliarists passed this information on to the pilots and the active-duty Coast Guard, the boat stations for the Coast Guard spread the word—if any fishing boat crosses close to another boat’s bow without making appropriate passing arrangements, the incident should be reported, including reporting the large registration numbers painted on the superstructure of the fishing boat.

If a particular boat was reported crossing too many times without making passing arrangements, the Coast Guard let it be known it would seize the boat. The word spread throughout the fishing fleet and, quickly, the problem seemed to vanish.

Riding The Levees

After 9/11, the Coast Guard was tasked with many more security missions but was not provided sufficient additional personnel to accomplish them. Again, the Auxiliarists stepped in.

One mission was for the Coast Guard vehicles to ride the Mississippi River levees between Baton Rouge and Venice, La., where the roadway ended, checking in on the 72 Critical Infrastructure Facilities. Auxiliarists accepted the mission and would be assigned a Coast Guard SUV with a sign identifying them as Coast Guard personnel on the doors.

The Auxiliarists rotated personnel, patrolling four days a week, and stopped at the 72 Critical Infrastructure Facilities fronting on the Mississippi River levees, including petrochemical plants, refineries, grain elevators and others, getting a business card from the facility head of security and noting the GPS coordinates for a database they were building.

Driving directions to the facilities, the phone number for facility office and head of security and the GPS coordinates for helicopters to respond if an incident was reported—all went into the database, which did not exist prior to the Auxiliarists getting involved.

In addition, the Auxiliarists would note the location of channel buoys that had broken free of their moorings during high river and were carried downstream where they were snagged by trees alongside the levees.

Active-duty Coasties would use that information to try to recover the buoys. Some buoys were even discovered in the water-cooling intake for the Waterford nuclear power plant, the Reisches said.

When security plans at critical infrastructure facilities called for construction of fencing or bollards in entrance roadways, the Auxiliarists would report on progress.

“It saved the active-duty Coast Guard members a lot of time, making them available for other duties,” Karen Reisch said.

The Auxiliarists were not authorized to respond to an incident. Their task was to report it to local authorities who would respond. The “See Something, Say Something” mission was first called “America’s Waterways Watch” but later became known as “Marine Observation Missions.”

Radio Communications

One of the most significant lessons learned from the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 was the inability of first responders to communicate between units.

Following Hurricane Katrina, the need for a transportable Command Center and Communications facility to augment Sector New Orleans capabilities became apparent, said former Coast Guard Auxiliary Commodore Richard McConnell, who currently serves with New- Orleans-based Flotilla 4-9.

With the guidance and assistance of John Buie, an Auxiliarist living in Baton Rouge and serving in the state Emergency Preparedness office, the state of Louisiana donated a trailer with a complete communications package for use in responding to this need to the USCG Flotilla 4-10 in Baton Rouge

The state continues to provide warehouse space at the Port of Baton Rouge for the storage and maintenance of the trailer. The team operates under the command and control of Sector New Orleans and exercises the system weekly with Auxiliary members holding communications certifications using mobile units and fixed land stations in the testing.

Flotilla 4-10 trained the required personnel and currently leads USCG Division IV’s ability to provide a ready response, McConnell said, adding, in 2021, the Coast Guard acquired an accommodations trailer with a generator to provide eating and sleeping spaces for the team when the volunteer Auxiliarists are deployed for extended periods.

Among others, significant deployments included: Hurricane Michael on the Florida panhandle in October 2018; Hurricane Harvey for aircraft control in August 2017; and Hurricane Ida at Pecan Island, La., in August and September 2021.

In addition to the deployable team, Auxiliary Division IV has established a VHF repeater system to enhance response capabilities following any type of emergency. It provides coverage for the Mississippi River from 20 miles above Baton Rouge to Port Sulphur, along the Intracoastal Waterway (ICWW) from the Rigolets to Intracoastal City and for Lakes Maurepas, Pontchartrain and Borgne and into the Mississippi Sound.

Communications capabilities for the trailer include multiple VHF-FM transceivers that cover the marine band and specific Coast Guard frequencies, a VHF-AM aeronautical transceiver, HF-SSB for long-range communications and a transceiver set up for the LWIN (Louisiana Wide Information Network) system, which provides direct communications with all the parish and state offices throughout Louisiana.

Wi-Fi and cellphone external antennas with signal amplifiers provide enhanced coverage in both systems, including a satellite antenna to connect to the internet no matter where the unit is deployed.

Volunteers Needed

“Got something left in the old tank?” asked Pete Scamardo, the Auxiliary Division chief of staff. “Unfinished business or an unfilled desire to make a difference? We may have just the thing to fix that. … Volunteer for the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary!”

Scamardo said many retiring mariners think they are too old. But as a professional mariner, “you’ve earned your stripes. Your experience is invaluable. Why not use it for a greater good…saving lives?” he asked. Auxiliary members can put in as many, or as few, hours as they choose.

He suggested some of the areas that volunteers can help become “force multipliers” for the active-duty Coast Guard, including:

• Culinary assistance—working with active-duty chefs on bases or aboard cutters. Recently a request for 144 Auxiliarists with culinary certification was put out to assist at the southern border;

• Surface operations—patrolling the waterways and providing safety zones for various waterway events;

• Communications–working side by side with active-duty watch-standers at Coast Guard stations and Vessel Traffic Service;

• Public education—the No. 1 objective of the Auxiliary, sharing your knowledge by teaching safe boating; and

• Vessel examinations-inspecting recreational or commercial vessels, making sure they are equipped with required safe boating equipment, including life jackets for everyone on board.

“There are roughly 22,000 Auxiliarists today,” Scamardo said. “Our job is to assist the active duty with its mission of safe boating. We stand alongside of 38,000 men and women of the United States Coast Guard. They call us a force multiplier.“We are there to save lives,” he continued. “So, are you interested? It’s as simple as going to your computer and typing”