Coast Guard has girded defense since 9/11

In the seven years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the San Francisco Bay has become massively more militarized, draped with a heavily armed flotilla of helicopters, ships and agents ready to protect lives and commerce from the presumed threat of tyrannical terrorists.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s orange, 21-foot dinghies zipping about the Bay in bolstered numbers are equipped with 4-foot-long machine guns that can tear through steel by unleashing 10 bullets per second.

The familiar buzz of four unarmed Coast Guard helicopters that patrol the shorelines is being swapped out for the quieter drone of similar-looking but armor-laden choppers equipped with machine guns and rifles.

“Shortly after 9/11, we started ramping up,” San Francisco Sector Commander Capt. Paul Gugg said. “At times, it’s completely unnecessary to be armed. But there are those situations where you’re dealing with people who have been acting illegally or negligently.”

The Bay Area is listed by the Department of Homeland Security as one of the seven U.S. regions with the greatest risk of a terrorist attack or natural disaster because of its landmarks, urban density and economy. In August, the federal department set aside $37.2 million to protect the region from threats or unforeseen accidents.

The Coast Guard is just one of several agencies that have broadened their presence in the Bay Area. The agency’s requested budget has risen from $3.9 billion before 9/11 to $9.4 billion in 2008, U.S. Government Accountability Office reports show. There now are 27 armed small Coast Guard boats stationed in the Bay Area — up from 19 before 9/11, according to agency figures.

To help operate the new vehicles and wield the additional weapons, the Coast Guard has expanded its force of officers and broadened their training.

The new measures are designed to protect the Bay Area and Port of Oakland against foreign and domestic enemies, Gugg said.

“The mounted automatic weapons are relatively new in the numbers and on the type of craft that you’re seeing,” Gugg said.

The 27-pound M240B weapons mounted on the agency’s 25-foot response boats and 41-foot rescue boats are fully-automatic machine guns that can spray 200 to 600 rounds per minute fed through ammunition belts, product specifications show. They can hit targets 2.3 miles away.

The agency’s 87-foot boats can fire 5-inch slugs through .50-caliber machine guns, according to officials.

Unlike the Army, Air Force, Navy or Marines, which are normally barred from enforcing civilian laws by the 1878 U.S. Posse Comitatus Act, the Coast Guard has broad enforcement authorities for Californians covering everything from fishing-license rules to narcotics interception and counter-terrorism missions.

A new vessel-boarding team developed by the San Francisco Coast Guard in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks led to a “significant increase in personnel,” spokeswoman Lauren Kolumbic said.

Hardware on display

A bevy of heavy-duty equipment purchased by The City to protect residents from terrorists and earthquakes will be presented to the public Friday.

What: Command van, bomb-squad truck, casualty shelters and other disaster-related equipment displayed during the S.F. Disaster Council meeting.

When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday

Location: Pier 48

By the numbers

$20 million: Price of each new MH-65C Dolphin helicopter

4: Helicopters stationed at Yerba Buena Island

180 mph: Top speed of the U.S. Coast Guard’s new helicopters

$2 million: Price of each 41-foot rescue boat

$250,000: Price of each 25-foot response boat

46 mph: Top speed of the Coast Guard’s 25-foot response boats

$24.4 billion: Imports through Port of Oakland last year

$11.4 billion: Exports through Port of Oakland last year

Sources: U.S. Coast Guard, Port of Oakland

Small fish, invisible fence protect city’s water supply

An unlikely combination of invisible electronic fencing and 2-inch bluegill fish has been deployed to help protect San Francisco’s drinking water in the wake of Sept. 11.

The drinking water is carried from Hetch Hetchy through seven counties down 185 miles to taps in San Francisco and neighboring municipalities.

Greg Suhr has traveled as far as Israel for water-defense ideas since the San Francisco Police Department deputy chief was appointed to manage homeland security for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in 2005. He is charged with protecting the water from poisons and other malicious contaminants.

Since 2006, the agency’s security staff has been “fine-tuning” an invisible fence in Yosemite designed to detect humans creeping toward valuable water supplies. The biggest challenge has been false alarms triggered by wildlife, Suhr said.

This year, the agency secured an $8 million U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant to expand a 3-year-old bio-monitoring program to place additional bluegills in drinking water. Computers monitor the fish and set off alarms when they change the way they swim or act, Suhr said. — John Upton

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