San Diego: Guarding the Southwest Gateway

It was barely dawn after the Independence Day weekend when spotlights suddenly flashed on two anglers drifting leisurely along near the mouth of San Diego harbor near the tip of Point Loma. Military Zodiac rafts mounting .50-caliber machine guns converged on their small craft, and the two fishermen caught in the beams froze and dropped their poles.
I know. I was one of those anglers.
“What are you guys doing out here?” barked an angry voice over a loudspeaker. “There’s an aircraft carrier on its way out, and you’re supposed to have your boat at least 500 yards from the main channel!”
Sheepish, intimidated, my friend and I sped from the area. “These guys are getting way out of control!” muttered my friend under his breath. “I sure don’t know what put a burr under their saddle!”
It wasn’t until a few hours later on that Thursday, July 7, after we had returned to port that we finally learned the reason for the Coast Guard’s reaction: On the other side of the globe, terrorist bombers linked to Al Qaeda had just set off multiple explosions in London, killing 52 innocent civilians.
In San Diego, Calif., authorities had reason for concern that day—and every other day, as well. San Diego County is the most southwesterly point in the continental United States. The city has a large natural harbor supporting international commerce, along with several active military installations, including the world’s largest naval port. Its southern border with Mexico is the world’s busiest international boundary. This is a region that obviously requires an optimum degree of stewardship by those in charge of addressing both local and national homeland security issues.
Serious matters
On land and sea, San Diego is taking its homeland security seriously.
Over the past few years, security at the Port of San Diego has been considerably tightened, but ever since the London bombings, tense encounters with authorities have become more common on local waterways.
Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, it was the illicit smuggling of drugs and illegal immigrants that was of primary concern to San Diego and Coast Guard authorities. Today, there’s grave concern that a commercial maritime vessel could be used to deliver a chemical, biological, nuclear or explosive device—and San Diego’s waters are filled with innumerable cruise ships, ferries, sport fishing boats and other excursion-type vessels.
The United States Coast Guard has expanded its security role through the “Sea Marshals” program, which was recently established in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Under the program, the Coast Guard provides an armed escort, as well as security, for pilots and bridge navigation teams as vessels enter US-controlled waters. This is intended to reduce the threat of incoming commercial vessels being used or hijacked for terrorist purposes.
On land, San Diego transit officials quickly strengthened security measures on all of the city’s mass transportation systems. They also issued a plea for public vigilance, and asked that individuals report any suspicious or unusual activities.
On Aug. 1, new security restrictions were announced by the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) prohibiting any waterfront parades down Harbor Drive while cruise ships were docked at the Embarcadero. The department cited concerns that large numbers of spectators, pedestrians and visitors might become the target for a terrorist assault during festivities.
In charge
Overseeing San Diego’s homeland security is Augie Ghio, the city’s director, whose operating principle is, as he puts it, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
The London bombings greatly accelerated his department’s pattern of response, Ghio told HSToday . “We’ve now gotten together with the County Office of Emergency Services, the Harbor Police, the Coast Guard, San Diego Police and Fire departments and have greatly improved our cross-jurisdictional and inter-jurisdictional notification policies,” he said. All parties streamlined their ability to communicate with each other instantaneously in the event of any emergency.
Ghio was particularly pleased at how rapidly the information grid was tightened. “Our 19 different jurisdictions are now working very closely on all issues; not just terrorism, but on practices involved in general disaster preparedness, as well,” he pointed out.
Regional response
This cooperative attitude has expanded beyond San Diego’s city limits. The city’s Department of Homeland Security continues to meet on a regular basis with the Joint Terrorism Watchforce made up of groups like the Unified Disaster Council, along with representatives from more southerly municipalities, such as National City and Chula Vista.
Additionally, San Diego’s Department of Homeland Security is an active participant in the Maritime Security Committee. This group of Coast Guard, Border Patrol and Harbor Police officials meets monthly to update their procedures.
Ghio has used the federal grant money coming into San Diego to staff his homeland security offices. Asked about any advice he has for other homeland security directors, Ghio was emphatic: “Hire, hire, hire! Hire your support staff! Use a significant portion of your grant monies to hire the people you need to do the job.” While technology purchases might be necessary, he was unwavering in his contention that obtaining and retaining sufficient personnel to cover emergencies should be of top importance.
But most of all, Ghio enthusiastically encourages public awareness and serves as a booster for citizen homeland security efforts. “We don’t want people to be alarmed … we want them to be aware!” he emphasized. “People need to learn to understand what government can and can’t do for them.” He has encouraged citizens to either join or form independent “neighborhood emergency response teams” within their local communities.
“It’s vital that we don’t let things that are happening in the world around us inhibit how we live our lives,” he argued. “We’ve got to keep going to work, we’ve got to keep having fun with our families and we’ve got to have a life. Fear can’t be allowed to dictate what we do.”
A San Diego native, Tom Gatch is a freelance writer covering a wide variety of topics for different publications. His company, El Puerto Literary Consultants, provides professional copywriting support for markets in the United States.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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