Dr. Michael Weinstein, president of the New Jersey Marine Sciences Consortium (NJMSC), with the aid and the full support of the of the U.S. Coast Guard, is developing a citizens' fleet comprised of volunteers whose private vessels could transport people and supplies from or to lower Manhattan in case of an attack or another extreme sudden emergency. Weinstein, government officials, and owners of private commercial vessels gathered at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken two weeks ago to finalize plans and discuss logistics of the citizens' fleet.
The fleet will go under the name Harbor Emergency Response Organization (HERO).
According to Weinstein, the fleet will operate under the guidance of the captain of the port and the Coast Guard and will be mobilized to serve as a supplemental resource to the first responders and other emergency preparedness personnel. The Coast Guard is the lead governmental agency when it comes to marine homeland security.
"While this is a fleet that will hopefully never be called into action, the level of enthusiasm to participate has been very encouraging," said Weinstein.
According to Weinstein, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, nearly 800,000 people were evacuated from lower Manhattan. Yet, it became abundantly clear just how vulnerable the island was to large-scale attack, and the inherent difficulties in managing the movement of people, emergency supplies and equipment to and from Ground Zero.
These difficulties might be infinitely compounded with more generalized attacks at multiple locations including bridges and tunnels.
He added that in order to cope with the potential chaos that would ensue from a large-scale attack, alternate means must be found to access Manhattan Island by land, air and sea. In the New York-New Jersey Harbor vicinity there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of mid-sized commercial, charter, research boats and other working vessels that could play an important role in transporting emergency personnel, severely injured individuals, materials and supplies between Manhattan and New Jersey, Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten Island and other localities.
"[Sept. 11] has opened the eyes of many, many people," said Howard Butt from the Office of Emergency Management, New Jersey State Police. "Since that day it has become abundantly clear that we have to expand the horizon of what we need to plan for. The goal here is to use all available resources to augment the services provided by the Coast Guard and the first responders. If we don't have an organized response, that then becomes part of the problem."
Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-37th District), who sits on the Homeland Securities and State Preparedness Committees, is one of the biggest supporters of the HERO program. He said that since 9/11, people's mentality and willingness to participate in preparedness training and contingency planning has increased tenfold.
"I commended these people that are selflessly willing to give of their time and resources to make a program like this possible," he said. "It is this type of comprehensive preparedness and planning that will ultimately save lives if there ever is another unforeseen emergency."
Figuring out logistics
Items that were discussed in the full-day workshop were which types and sizes of ships will compose the fleet, where will the staging areas for the fleet be located, and the geographic area encompassed by the fleet.
While the planning process is fluid and might change in the future, according to Raymond Bogan of the law firm Bogan, Kearns and Bogan, the fleet will be made up mostly of commercial passenger vessels that carry 100 to 149 passengers. Also, he said that scalloping and clamming boats will likely be incorporated.
He added that at this time it is unlikely that recreational boats will serve as fleet members. Tugs and pilot boats will be involved, but will serve as separate command and control platforms to operate under the Coast Guard's evacuation plan for the harbor that will include most ferry boats.
The geographic range of the fleet is slated to run from Captree, N.Y. to Point Pleasant, N.J.
Also discussed were what type of training captains will need to take, the communication protocols and the operating procedures if an emergency does occur, insurance liability issues, and education and outreach to the recreational boating community.
The next step is for the organizers of HERO to actively search out boats that fit the requirements of the program, and train the captains of those boats. The process could take several months, according to organizers.