The Coast Guard and Its Chief, Models of Excellence

By Stephen Barr
Thursday, April 20, 2006

There's a lot of snap, crackle and pop in the office of Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen .

His aides juggle phone calls, keep meetings on time and listen closely to the boss. It seems that everyone outside the U.S. Coast Guard wants to grab some insider time with Allen, who was called in by the White House to put muscle in an initially feeble federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

Allen and the Coast Guard are something of a rarity in government these days -- a leader and an organization that excel at their mission. As Allen puts it, "We have been tested, and we are trusted."

Using boats and helicopters, Coast Guard crews rescued more than 33,000 people along the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans after Katrina hit last August. The Coast Guard jumped into action before any other agency, even though many of its personnel had lost their homes in the hurricane.

Such risk-taking initiative stood in sharp contrast to the jumbled, sluggish effort by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Since Katrina, members of Congress and key administration officials have been eager to see if the Coast Guard can be used as a model for other parts of the Department of Homeland Security and elsewhere in government. Allen, chief of staff for the Coast Guard, thinks there are lessons to be shared.

His next job should make that effort easier. He has been confirmed by the Senate to become the service's next commandant, and a change-of-command ceremony is scheduled for May 25, when Allen will become an admiral.

Allen made time for an interview on a recent spring day at the Coast Guard headquarters, a plain building full of cramped offices on 2nd Street SW, not far from Fort McNair. Near Allen's desk are two boxes, filled with files from his stint as the "principal federal official" in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Allen jokes that the Coast Guard, with about 43,000 personnel, is an "organizational chameleon."

Depending on circumstance, the men and women of the Coast Guard may be police, intercepting drugs; sailors on patrol in war zones; humanitarians, rescuing migrants on rickety boats; environmentalists, cleaning up oil spills; or port security experts, ferreting out terrorist threats.

"The ability to apply assets, competencies and talents of our people across a lot of different mission areas is what makes us unique," Allen said.

Now, the Coast Guard has weathered Katrina, what Allen calls "the thousand-years flood." In the days after the hurricane, he says, the Coast Guard found itself managing large, complex events that were without precedent and that crossed federal, state and local boundaries.

Katrina, of course, came after the Coast Guard mobilized as part of the response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Allen was the Coast Guard's Atlantic commander at the time, and the experience reinforced his sense that the service succeeds because "we are bureaucratically multilingual" and able to effectively partner across the public and private sectors.

The Coast Guard has developed 21 characteristics and skills that its leaders must have, and Allen says he values the agency's core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty. People who work around him, he says, must have the "ability to speak truth to power. I admire that in folks I work for and in folks who work for me."

As commandant, his biggest management challenge will be keeping the Coast Guard's aging fleet on the go while getting high-tech replacements built as fast as possible. Some Coast Guard ships date to World War II and others to the Vietnam era.

Allen inherits a $24 billion acquisition program to replace ships, aircraft and support systems, known as Deepwater. The first new aircraft recently rolled off the assembly line, and the first "national security cutter" will be christened this fall. Allen hopes to try new crewing concepts, such as creating multiple crews that can rotate on and off the new ships and lengthen the time they are at sea.

He also will oversee completion of Rescue 21, a $700 million program to upgrade the coastal radio system used by mariners in distress. A mobile version of Rescue 21 was deployed to restore communications with mariners in the Port Sulphur region of Louisiana after Katrina hit.

Allen said he knows the Coast Guard's reputation is only as good as its last operation and that the nation's ports face potential terrorist threats. "I don't think we can predict what is going to happen," he said. "Even if we don't know what is going to happen, these are the people I'd rather spend my time with waiting for it."

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

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