Coast Guard Capt. Stephen Metruck sits atop a complex web of law-enforcement agencies that is working to deter, respond to and recover from any potential attack or threats.
His watch covers hundreds of miles of Puget Sound and Washington coast.
It stretches inland to Idaho and Montana.
It covers the nation’s largest ferry system, a major container Port complex, cruise ships and pleasure boats.
If terrorists strike any of this turf — and experts say it is a likely target — Stephen Metruck will be the one to call.
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As U.S. Coast Guard commander for Sector Seattle, Metruck is the region’s leading federal official in charge of water security, a role the Coast Guard took on after the Sept. 11 attacks.
U.S. Coast Guard Commander
Top federal official dealing with waterborne terrorism, security, the environment and rescue in the Puget Sound area. Has authority over ships and ports in 3,500 square miles of sea coast and inland waterways.
Responsibilities: Became Seattle Port captain in June 2005. Wears three hats: As commander of Sector Seattle for the U.S. Coast Guard, he is responsible for rescue missions and security; as captain of the Port of Seattle, he oversees security at container terminals and the ports of Seattle, Tacoma, Everett and Port Angeles; as Federal Maritime Security Coordinator, he will direct the response should terrorists strike waterways in northern Washington, Idaho or Montana. He also heads a regional committee working to prevent and respond to an attack.
Background: Age 46. Born in Massena, N.Y. Joined the Coast Guard in 1978. Bachelor’s degree in ocean engineering from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. Master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Before Seattle: Served as commanding officer of the Coast Guard marine-safety office in San Diego from 2001 to 2004; military fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., from 2004 to 2005; Coast Guard liaison to the United Nations in New York City from 1999 to 2001.
Source: U.S. Coast Guard
He is one of a handful of such commanders around the country who now sit atop a complex web of law-enforcement agencies in their regions.
They have unprecedented authority. They can close any port to all ship and truck traffic, authorize boardings of any ships — from hulking cargo carriers to private vessels.
When a K-9 dog sniffed something suspicious in a cargo container at Seattle’s Port in August, Metruck was the one who ordered an evacuation and halted ship traffic in a security zone around it.
But he wasn’t glued to the phone or barking orders. The soft-spoken commander kept his appointment with a reporter and joked with his staff members. When his cellphone rang during the interview, he checked who was calling and then ignored it.
“He’s very, very, very calm and controlled,” said Tim Kimsey, chief of the Port of Seattle police, who spoke with Metruck three or four times that day and whose bomb technicians responded to the emergency. (Nothing untoward was found in the container.)
Metruck knows how to give orders and expects them followed, his colleagues say. Yet he is more than a military man. An ocean engineer by training, he also earned a public-policy degree at Harvard. While in the Coast Guard, he has worked at the United Nations; at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank; and as an aide to Sen. John Kerry, handling environmental issues. Those experiences make him comfortable with complex policy problems.
Chief of area security
It’s a background well-suited to his role as chairman of a regional group working to deter, respond to and recover from attack.
The Area Maritime Security Committee (AMSC), set up to respond to terror threats, involves agencies with a stake in security — police and fire departments, Washington State Patrol, county sheriff and FBI — as well as private companies, labor unions, tribal governments, even tugboat operators.
Though Metruck, 46, will call the shots in a crisis, he says security depends on partnerships with all of these groups.
“It’s not done in a vacuum,” he said. “Somebody has to make the decisions, but it’s in coordination and collaboration.”
That’s a sharp change from the often adversarial relations among agencies, locally and nationally, before Sept. 11, 2001. Metruck’s AMSC meetings are crisply run, but informal enough that people can speak freely. Metruck, though well informed on security and technology, listens closely and invites discussion.
“He’s smart enough to realize it can’t always be the Coast Guard way,” said Steve McCulley, assistant division commander for the Homeland Security Division of Washington State Patrol, who sits on the AMSC.
Metruck’s colleagues say he thinks beyond his responsibility to how attacks on land could affect waterways, cut off oil and food supplies or damage the environment.
“He’s got a really broad understanding,” said Kimsey, the Port of Seattle police chief. “He knows we’re not just out here playing cops and going to go catch the bad guys.”
Tension in partnership
But there’s tension in the partnership: Metruck also regulates the private companies and agencies he’s trying to work with. Earlier this year, for example, he wrote a letter demanding the state ferry system improve security.
“It was direct, to the point — I’m ordering you to do this,” said Scott Davis, safety-systems manager for the ferries. “It left no room for ambiguity what his expectations were.”
Davis had issues with Metruck’s approach. “We went back and said, ‘We understand what your expectations are, but maybe there’s more than one way to skin the cat,’ ” Davis said.
Metruck was amenable, Davis said. “He encourages it.”
From his wood-paneled office at Pier 36, overlooking Elliott Bay, Metruck also is presiding over the local part of the largest buildup in security forces and facilities in recent Coast Guard history. The most visible local symbol: a $16 million, 58,000-square-foot building to house a so-called Joint Harbor Operations Center, with space for 18 agencies on the “watch floor” — a command and communications center equipped with computers, phones, security-camera feeds and other information about the waterways.
The Navy will be there around the clock. Metruck wants other agencies to put people there, too — Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Seattle Fire Department, Seattle police, King County agencies, and the Washington State Patrol. “Even the Canadians,” Metruck said.
Metruck also is talking with Port terminal operators — the private companies that load and unload ships in port — to link their security cameras to the center, where the pictures can be seen by all. In other big ports, those efforts have hit obstacles, because companies fear competitors will spy on their operations.
It’s an exercise in building consensus, because participation in planning for attacks is voluntary. Despite Metruck’s broad authority, an effective plan and a well-staffed operations center are crucial to making waterways and ports more secure.
“There are limits to what (authority) can get you if you haven’t worked out these protocols and don’t have the relationships in advance,” said Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a classmate of Metruck at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
A native of Massena, in upstate New York, Metruck discovered an interest in boats and the environment while watching ships move along the St. Lawrence River. While in the Coast Guard he was assigned to work for Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, and pursued his policy and environmental interests in graduate school at Harvard, where he briefly considered leaving the service.
But he found he could work on policy issues in the Coast Guard, so he stayed. Indeed, the Coast Guard’s new mission puts it at the center of policy and protection. It has joined the intelligence community, swapping information with the FBI, CIA and other agencies.
At Metruck’s previous post, in San Diego, he shut the port after the Sept. 11 attacks for two days, then ordered all arriving commercial ships stopped and boarded for the next two or three weeks. He said his response would be different today because of improvements in monitoring vessel traffic.
Notice by ships
Ships now must give notice of their approach 96 hours before they plan to dock, enabling the Coast Guard to refuse entry to coastal waters if it deems a vessel suspicious. And the Coast Guard has sophisticated equipment for tracking ships.
Down the hall from Metruck’s office are several darkened rooms that amount to an air-traffic-control center for ships. The Vessel Traffic Service uses radar, cameras, satellites and radio transponders aboard ships to map the location of dozens of sizable vessels as they move through Puget Sound and connected waterways. A partnership with Canada allows information from its vessels to appear on the computer screens in Seattle.
“Those are capabilities that weren’t there before 2001,” Metruck said, gesturing to blips moving across flat-panel displays. “We had no awareness of ships coming into port. We take it for granted now, but these are quantum leaps.”
The Coast Guard still shoulders all of its usual duties, such as rescuing boaters, helping ships at sea, tracking vessels moving through busy waters, policing the environment and chasing drug runners.
But preventing and responding to a terror attack will be what the public notices.
So Metruck has reorganized the AMSC to focus on issues such as state ferries, infrastructure and intelligence. He also has gotten eight regional SWAT teams to train together with the local FBI and Coast Guard teams, standardizing equipment and procedures so they can function as a unit if they need to.
Although Puget Sound is considered high-risk, it has far fewer officers and equipment than Los Angeles and New York.
“Steve has really pushed the recognition of that, and has started the earnest discussion of, ‘If we have a major incident, how are we going to support each other?’ ” said Scott Somers, chief of the special-operations division of the King County Sheriff’s Office.
Metruck’s collaborative tone follows that set by his predecessor, Port Capt. Danny Ellis. But by pressing meetings, training and vigorous discussion, Somers said, “He’s taken that to the next level by ensuring Port partners really work together.”
Alwyn Scott: 206-464-3329 or email@example.com