Rear Admiral (RADM) Paul Pluta
, the man in charge of ensuring the security of the 361 ports and 95,000 miles of coastline in the U.S., had to quickly shift gears in the hours following September 11. Hired initially to beef up environmental protection and passenger vessel safety, Pluta realized after that day, that his role as Assistant Commandant for Marine Safety, Security and Environmental Protection, U.S. Coast Guard, had changed dramatically in the hours following.
September 11 began like any other for RADM Pluta. Working out of his office in Washington, D.C. where he was appointed to earlier that year by Coast Guard Admiral James Loy, RADM Pluta was examining the two major tasks at hand – the tasks that Loy had hired him for initially – environmental protection and improved safety onboard passenger vessels. Specifically he was focusing on Loy’s main concern at the time, which was added resources for vessels in distress, as well as aquatic nuisance species in ballast water onboard that oftentimes lead to environmental and logistical complications onboard ships. The agenda for the day changed drastically however, when the terrorist attacks in New York City and in Washington, D.C. – mere steps from RADM Pluta’s home base – occurred.
Pre-September 11, Pluta’s main priorities, according to him, also involved port state control, and ensuring that all foreign-flagged vessels coming into our nation’s port are properly equipped and maintained. “We’re looking out for unscrupulous operators who are not maintaining their vessels,” Pluta said. “We want to know: Does everything work? Will the engine fail? We also want to ensure that the ship is complying with international standards.”
While all these components are ones that RADM Pluta has poured his soul into, they were put on the back burner, but not completely burnt out once September 11 happened. “While our focus changed dramatically after September 11, to homeland security, that doesn’t mean that the push for the programs has faltered,” RADM Pluta said.
In financial terms however, the budget set aside for homeland/maritime security, according to RADM Pluta, jumped drastically after the attacks. What once was a budget of a little more than one percent set aside for maritime security – jumped to 58 percent in the days following September 11. These funds, which were allotted to the support of added personnel, planes and helicopters, were raised in response to America’s need for port protection. “America needed this (the added funds),” Pluta said. “We didn’t know when the next attack would be coming. We (USCG) had to protect our ports – that’s our job.”
Since then, according to Pluta, the USCG budget allotted for homeland security has been adjusted to 20-25 percent, which is equal to what is set aside yearly for Coast Guard Search and Rescue efforts. And while things seem to be “back to normal,” the USCG will not push port security forces to the wayside.
Before the 11th, port security was something that seemed to fall to the wayside and was never enforced. “We can’t be cavalier about our ports,” Pluta said. “Everything is tied into security.”
As a young man growing up in the New York City suburb of Carteret, N.J., Pluta knew that he wanted to be involved with some branch of the military, but the decision that loomed over him throughout high school was a tough one. Upon graduation from high school, he weighed his options, singling out the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y. and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy
in New London, Conn. At the urging of his brother, who ironically was a recruiter for the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., Pluta decided to head to New England to attend the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut, where he would spend four years in the classroom and at sea. Following graduation, he was selected to attend a graduate program at the University of Michigan, where he came out with a degree in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, thus beginning his career in marine safety.
After graduating from U. of Michigan, RADM Pluta went south to New Orleans, La. taking a position as a plan reviewer for commercial vessels. From there he went to Washington, D.C. as a USCG staff engineer, and then off to Baltimore, Md. as a chief resident inspector at what was then known as Bethlehem Steel Shipyard.
While he enjoyed his time at the shipyard, the early 1990’s brought about change in the maritime industry, with not only the economic recession, but the Persian Gulf War as well. In response, Pluta took a position in Wilmington, Del. as the Commanding Officer of Marine Safety. According to Pluta, while this was an exciting time, it was also a busy one, as he was supervising all the major U.S. Ports, including Sunny Point Military Ocean Terminal, which is the largest military explosive handling facility. He also oversaw the outloads of the U.S. Marine Corps and their supplies to and from Camp Le Jeune, N.C. during Operation Desert Storm.
When the Gulf War ended, RADM Pluta was transferred to Cleveland, Ohio where he served as Chief of Staff in the USCG Great Lakes District, part of which included the St. Lawrence Seaway. It was during this time, that Pluta was selected by the USCG to hold the distinction of flag rank as Admiral and returned to D.C. to serve within the office of Intelligence and Security – a position he would hold until he was transferred one last time to New Orleans, this time as USCG District Officer. Working out of New Orleans RADM Pluta commandeered activities on more than 10,000 miles of inland waterways in the Gulf of Mexico region for three years.
In May 2001, he was asked to return to Washington, D.C., this time at the request of USCG Admiral James Loy, who appointed him to his current position as Assistant Commandant for Marine Safety & Environmental Protection.
A Five Year Plan
RADM Pluta knows that for the next three- to five-years he will spend more time and money on maritime security. It is a process, that will encompass this specific amount of time simply because there is much to be done in the area of recruitment. Why people are not going after careers in the maritime industry is a question that RADM Pluta often ponders. His solution is to figure out how and why this is happening. Therefore, he is pushing to get more individuals involved in an industry where there is a growing need for talented people. “We need to turn up the recruiting machine, but it will take time,” RADM Pluta said. “You can’t train 5,000 new USCG personnel overnight.”
Americans can also get ready to see more USCG boats on the water in and around harbors, inland waterways and power plants, as well as additional search and rescue personnel. “We’re a response organization, we’re getting better at awareness, and on September 11, we came through big time,” Pluta said. “We need more USCG presence on the water.”
The USCG is also keeping in tune with security onboard cruise ships via partnering and outreach with governing organizations such as Passenger Vessel Association (PVA – ferries and small vessels), the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL – large cruise ships), American Waterways Operators (AWO – towboats and barges), and the National Cargo Bureau, which examines cargo ships and the products that they carry. A temporary rule was also enacted forcing vessels entering into a port to provide the USCG with 96 hours of notice – rather than the customary 24 hours – a rule that Pluta supports. “Twenty four hours is just not enough time for screening of passengers and crew,” he said. “With this new rule, we have a better idea of what types of vessels are coming our way, and more importantly – what they’re carrying.”
While the new 96-hour rule provides more time for the USCG to further investigate vessels making their way in and out of our nation’s ports, the organization still cannot possibly hop aboard and inspect every vessel that comes into every American port. In response, the USCG has established three levels or conditions, so that officers on patrol know what vessels pose the highest risk:
· Condition One – New normalcy, daily enhanced security;
· Condition Two – Heightened level of security;
· Condition Three – Highest level, officers need to be on alert that an attack is imminent.
“We don’t want terrorists using vessels as weapons or targets,” Pluta said. “Therefore we want to identify those ships that first pose the highest risk and would therefore have sea marshals and Coast Guard personnel boarding them.”
The Coast Guard has yet another team on its side – the Maritime Safety and Security Team (MS&ST) – established as a means of instilling special safety measures if terrorists should strike at one of our nation’s port. According to RADM Pluta, the MS&ST Team, similar to sea marshals, would board any vessel coming into port that posed a security/safety threat. The team would then thoroughly examine the vessel, until it was satisfied that it was safe to enter the specific port.
Another security measure that has been adapted since September 11 is a Port Security Committee, which consists of various government and private agencies that work together with the USCG to ensure that the new security measures are met.
A Modest Proposal
Port security is obviously not only a U.S. concern, and the matter is a top agenda item for the IMO. RADM Pluta, was present at the organization’s summit that occurred from May 15-24 to propose a selection of improved safety and security rules and regulations that he feels must be implemented to maintain seaport safety post September 11 – both domestically and internationally.
The following is a brief description of some of the regulations that RADM Pluta will be discussing that the IMO Meeting:
· Automated Identification Systems (AIS). These transponders must be installed on all ships to provide ease of vessel detection when approaching ports.
· Vessel and port security plans. Ships and ports must have security officers in place to ensure that proper security measures are being followed.
· Seafarer Identification – A centralized ID system must be implemented for identification of crewmembers.
RADM Pluta feels that first and foremost, the AIS system is something that he would like to see become mandatory on all vessels around the world, and he is confident that this will become a mandatory regulation sooner than later, since he received a favorable response to it from IMO’s Secretary-General Bill O’Neil at the organization’s Diplomatic Conference this past December.
RADM Pluta also holds high hopes for another safety measure that is currently in the works – an electronic seal for all containers transported on ships. There have been frequent reports of stowaways, hiding in containers trying to gain access to the U.S. illegally – or more threatening, there were recent reports that a suspected terrorist was picked up in Italy after he had been hiding in a container onboard a ship. “Almost no one knows what exactly is in these containers – weapons, terrorists, bombs,” he said. “The electronic seal will therefore ensure and be able to detect whether or not the container has been tampered with.”
Even though the events of September 11 seem to have occurred so long ago, RADM Pluta and his security team are not backing down. While security has relaxed from the immediate response to the terrorist attacks, the USCG does not plan to ease up its protective hand. “We will never return to the level of security we had before September 11. Simply put, security was very poor,” RADM Pluta said. “As a result it made us (the American people) especially vulnerable to threats.”
Moving forward, RADM Pluta’s security plan for a “new normalcy,” includes a major focus on products and people that are making their way through our nation’s ports on a daily basis. “There will be no more surprise (terrorist) attacks if we work together to improve security,” he said. “We can’t ever let things go back to the way they were – the public deserves that much.”
According to RADM Pluta, the following components for a successful strategic maritime security plan are as follows:
· Conduct more port security patrol;
· Provide more port vulnerability assessment;
· More Coast Guard personnel overseas;
· Continue to work with other countries to ensure safe ports’
· To always be aware of what is going on in the ports, regarding passengers, crew and cargo;
· VTS in ports and waterways;
· Deepwater Integrated System;
· Continual support from Congress and Bush Administration.
A Perfect World With No Budgets
If there were such a thing as a perfect world, the terms “fiscal” or “budget” would not be in the vocabulary of the U.S. Government. Alas, there is that thing called reality, which allows for a certain amount of monies set aside for each branch of the Armed Forces. While the Coast Guard was granted an extra amount of money post-September 11, there have been various reports that the organization is cutting back on its budget – specifically its Sea Marshal security team – due to a lapse in finances.
According to news reports, the USCG needs a supplement of $228 million just to keep the sea marshal force alive. In addition, the USCG has also put in a request to Congress for an additional $750 million in fiscal year 2003, which commences this October 1.
While the USCG would not specifically report how many sea marshals are currently deployed on vessels, the organization has reportedly said that it did let go about half of the group in the area in which it commenced – the San Francisco Bay. “There’s no such thing as a ‘perfect world,’ RADM Pluta said. “Any government agency is always going to be asking for added funds. The budget will always be an issue, we have to be realistic in that we’re never going to get all of the funding.”
However, despite a lack of funding, RADM Pluta did say that the Bush Administration and the Congress have been overly supportive of the Coast Guard, which for the most part has always been under funded. Specifically Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, who has continued to focus on not only the aviation side of transportation security, has put much effort in working to implement a strategic plan for maritime security as well.