Coast Guard Asks Civilians For Help Policing Great Lakes

By PAUL SINGER, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - Boatswain Mate 2nd Class John Herbert steers his Coast Guard utility boat through choppy waters on Lake Erie, eyes out for anything out of the ordinary that could be a security risk.

"I'm from Cincinnati. I'm not an expert on the Cleveland shoreline and what's out here," he says.

That is why the Coast Guard is turning to local boaters, fishermen and longtime residents who live along Lake Erie for help looking out for unusual security violations.

"The local people know where the best places are (to fish) because they've been here all their lives," said Lt. Ann Caretto. "A guy who is not wearing the right gear or fishing in an unusual location -- let us know about it."

With 295,000 square miles of land and water to police in the Great Lakes, including nearly 6,700 miles of coastline, the Coast Guard has started a new program called "Eyes on the Water" to enlist the aid of civilians in watching for security threats.

"We don't want people to be paranoid," Caretto said. "But it's like a homeowner at night: before bed, you go around and check the locks."

The Coast Guard's Cleveland office has established a hot line for civilians to call if they see something suspicious and has begun handing out brochures and window stickers to boaters listing contact numbers for the FBI, Coast Guard and customs and immigration offices.

Caretto said she is developing a training manual for marine organizations based on the successful "Neighborhood Watch" program that police have used to involve communities in fighting crime. The manual will allow boating and fishing groups or commercial organizations that use the lakes to train their members on what to look for and how to respond.

The definition of suspicious behavior depends heavily on traditional local practices, Caretto said.

Bobbing near one of Cleveland's drinking water intake sites on the lake, Herbert points to the lake's horizon.

"On Sunday mornings, there is a line of boats out there fishing perch," he said, a gathering known locally as Perch Church. "But if someone is fishing all alone over here, either they think they know something everyone else doesn't or maybe there is something else going on."

Herbert says that since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, civilians have already been offering tips on security threats.

"We had never gotten phone calls before then, and now we do," he said.

Along the shoreline, things that should arouse suspicion are broken or cut fencing, flashing lights between ship and shore and unusual filming or photographing, according to a Coast Guard pamphlet.

Each Coast Guard district is developing its own program, though they are all part of a nationwide effort to raise awareness of coastal and marine security. Detroit's Coast Guard post has a River Watch program; the Cleveland project is called Homeland Security Coast Watch.

In Connecticut last week the local Coast Guard announced the Coast Watch program asking coastal residents and boaters to look for suspicious people or activities near such vulnerable sites as marinas, power plants and bridges.

The Coast Guard office in Mobile, Ala., has set up a toll-free phone number for tips about suspicious activities along the Gulf of Mexico under a Community Coastal Watch campaign.

"There are regional, even some local plans, but they total up to a nationwide effort by the Coast Guard to raise awareness" about coastal security, said Dan Dewell, spokesman in the Coast Guard's Washington headquarters.

Bill Barry, spokesman for the Coast Guard's Atlantic Area Command, which reaches from the Atlantic Coast to the Rocky Mountains, said the various programs "developed organically from messages we were giving to the boating public after 9/11 about how to respond when you are out on the water."

Barry said they are essentially test programs, with the possibility that there will someday be a more unified national program.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)