New Coast Guard commander outlines challenges ahead

Capt. Jeremy Smith greets Coast Guard personnel during a change of command ceremony in June.

Capt. Jeremy Smith has logged a lot of miles since he took command of Coast Guard Sector Columbia River in June.

He has spent much of his first two months on the job traveling to bases in Portland; Kennewick, Washington; Grays Harbor, Washington; Tillamook and Cape Disappointment in a dash to learn as much as possible about the region.

In his 24 years in the Coast Guard — two years at the Coast Guard Academy and 22 years active service —, Smith’s experience includes policy development in Washington, D.C., and leading response and air operations in San Diego. Most recently, he was the executive officer of the Coast Guard’s Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Alabama. He also holds a master of science degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The new commander sat down for a conversation with The Daily Astorian, where he discussed, among other things, what he’s learned so far and his top priorities during his three-year tour. He also hinted that the 2021 arrival of two 154-foot Sentinel-class cutters in Astoria — announced last year — may not be a done deal.

Q: From what you’ve seen so far, what have been some of the biggest challenges and some of the advantages of working in this area and at this air station?

A: The biggest challenge is the distance — 400-some odd miles of coastline, 420-some odd miles of river from here all the way to Lewiston, Idaho. Area of response goes up to Grays Harbor, goes down to Coos Bay. Just that volume of work and all the activity that has to go, that’s associated with that is run out of here or Portland. So just keeping track of everything, understanding where our people are at and what they’re doing, knowing where the folks are at — that’s the biggest challenge.

Q: What are some of the top items on your agenda as far as personnel or operational policy?

A: I just want to make sure that the sector is positioned to support the district and to support the community. And then I want to make sure the folks here in the sector have the resources that they need to be comfortable in the community, so they’re not worried about their families or things in their home life, so when they come to work they’re focused on what they need to do that day and not worried about other things that are going on at home. So be that housing, medical care, ensuring that pay is commensurate with the cost of living for the area, and just making sure they have resources they need so that they can do their job.

Q: There’s been kind of a baby boom in the local Coast Guard recently, a lot of families having children. Is there anything that you think needs to be done to accommodate that extra load on their lives?

A: So one thing that I’ve heard a lot about is child care — be that in-home child care for folks that want that or preschool or day care. I’ve gotten a lot of informal feedback that the community may not have those resources readily available for people. I’m starting to, kind of, look at that and think maybe there’s an opportunity there for improvement.

Q: And, kind of in that same basket, housing is an issue in the area in general. In a few years, two cutters are going to be stationed in Astoria. What do you think needs to be done to accommodate probably close to 200 families coming to the area?

A: I think that it’s got to look at a couple different things. Housing obviously is the first and foremost. The number of cutters isn’t necessarily determined. Also, if new cutters do arrive, the 210s — the Alert and the Steadfast — are going to be decommissioned, so it’ll be leaving the area. So there’s a little bit of an offset there. When, exactly, all that occurs is still up to the decision-makers. I know the Coast Guard at the higher levels is looking at where they home port cutters. Just notionally looking at, “Are we putting the right assets in the right places?” Because there are, like you mentioned, areas like this where housing is an issue and the local economy is starting to pick up and housing prices are increasing. They’re looking at, “Where do we want to put cutters across the entire enterprise?” And they also look at the change in threats — border security, drug smuggling, arctic security — where are our cutters best positioned to meet the strategic needs of the service and the nation. So, we’ll see what happens in the grand scheme of things.

Q: You mean as far as the Steadfast and the Alert go?

A: Just, in general. Across the Coast Guard, we’re moving cutters around. I can think of an example on the Gulf Coast where they’ve moved home ports of cutters because of changes in the economy, the fishing fleet. They moved ports from one place to another, a place to follow the fish, so eventually the Coast Guard moved the cutters because they’re closer to the fishing community. So things like that will drive decisions on where folks live. I don’t — Astoria in particular — I don’t know that there’s any firm decision on where cutters are going to go. Like you said, two is kind of the number that has been thrown around. We’ll see what happens.

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