Driving through the port at 4 in the morning, Terminal Island seems more like a sleepy backstreet of San Pedro than part of the bustling 7,400-acre Los Angeles-Long Beach Port Complex. But this is just the lull before the storm of the frenzied daily operations.
The Los Angeles-Long Beach Port Complex is the busiest port complex in the United States by container volume (fifth in the world), more than 6,000 vessel arrive a year, and it handles 14.1 million containers (TEUs). The complex contains 57 container, bulk, and petro-chemical terminals. Additionally, there are several marinas, two cruise ship terminals, and two passenger ferry terminals with service to Catalina Island.
Various intelligence agencies have indicated that the port area is a prime terrorist target. In addition to the human toll that an incident could cause, it is estimated that a terrorist incident occurring at the entrance to the port or in the port itself, would cost the United States economy over $1 billion a day.
To counter this threat, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) has combined efforts with the United States Coast Guard, the Los Angeles Port Police, the Long Beach Police Department and other agencies to implement a very robust, proactive port and coastal security program that includes searching high-interest vessels before they enter the heavily populated ports.
When the LASD boat crew receives notice of a high-interest vessel entering the waters outside of the Port of Los Angeles, it adds a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Arson / Explosive K9 team, a HazMat team and Coast Guard members onto Ocean Rescue, the LASD homeland security boat. The daily boat crew consists of members of the LASD Special Enforcement Bureau’s Emergency Services Detail. These deputies are all Special Weapons Team members, divers and licensed paramedics.
The LASD boat crew notifies the high-interest vessel via marine radio of its intent to board the ship. The combined crew then boards the ship. United States Coast Guard personnel detain the ship’s crew and inspect passports and shipping documentation. Using sophisticated radiation detection equipment and trained explosive dogs, an LASD team checks the remainder of the ship for conventional explosives, weapons, nuclear devices and dirty bombs.
Emergency Services Detail divers will also periodically conduct hull searches. The ship is then cleared to continue into the port where additional security measures are in place and enforced by the U.S. Coast Guard, L.A. Port Police and Long Beach Police.
Recently, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Homeland Security boat and crew gathered at the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles—Long Beach boat basin to participate in early morning ship boarding operations off the coast of Los Angeles.
The tasking involved boarding several commercial vessels. To accomplish this, several Coast Guard assets (Coast Guard Cutter (CGC) ZEPHYR, CGC NARWHAL, STATION LOS ANGELES-LONG BEACH, and the SECTOR BOARDING TEAM) are involved in the operation. The CGC NARWHAL and the LASD Emergency Services Detail boat, Ocean Rescue, headed out of L.A. Channel first under the cover of darkness.
After passing through Angel’s Gate, CGC NARWHAL headed an hour south to pick up its first target, a tanker coming from Ecuador. LASD OCEAN RESCUE, which in addition to ship boarding handles all paramedic support for the mission, headed west to first rendezvous with CGC ZEPHYR and transfer a boarding team. They both headed north to intercept their targets. Within an hour and a half, the radios hummed with activity as three distinct boardings commenced, and coordination between the underway assets, tactical action officer, and Sector Command Center were maintained.
On LASD ESD OCEAN RESCUE, the 10 members of the joint boarding team got their equipment and reviewing assignments ready as they came alongside their target, a 900-container ship from China. Included on this team was Simba, an LASD arson explosives K9. His handler climbed aboard the ship. An LASD Emergency Services Detail deputy dropped a climbing rope that attaches to the dog’s harness and lifted Simba to the main deck. An LASD HazMat Radiation Team boarded the ship with radiation detection equipment. Once all the joint team members were on board, they searched the ship and assisted the Coast Guard captain of the port in determining whether the ship should be allowed to enter the port.
These boardings went smoothly, and the teams were recovered just before pilots were embarking the vessel to bring them through the breakwall and onto their berth. The teams then headed back out the traffic lanes for their next target. However, if unable to get to vessels in time or if boardings are not completed by the pilot buoy, the vessels can be directed to outside anchorages by the Vessel Traffic Center until the boarding can be completed.
After LASD ESD OCEAN RESCUE completed two more of these evolutions, it went back through Angel’s Gate and over the flats toward Long Beach to board a ship that just anchored. Along the way, the crew passes STATION LOS ANGELES-LONG BEACH, which is escorting a cruise ship out of the harbor.
Just aft of the cruise ship, a Los Angeles Port Police boat waited to recover two of its officers who were providing security on the cruise ship’s bridge. The ability of the Los Angeles Port Police to resource this particular mission allowed for Coast Guard assets to be utilized in other capacities, which demonstrated the benefits of strong ties among port partners.
Just after noon, with its operational goals complete, LASD ESD OCEAN RESCUE pulled into the Coast Guard boat basin to offload equipment and personnel before heading back to its moorings.
The amount of coordination and assistance the port partners provide each other at the Los Angeles-Long Beach Port Complex has been instrumental to the many successes here. This joint maritime homeland security effort has vastly improved the safety and security of the region.
Jack Ewell is with the LASD’s Office of Homeland Security. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Lieutenant Shawn Lansing is the assistant chief of enforcement at Coast Guard Sector of Los Angeles—Long Beach.