The Long Blue Line: National Strike Force—the Guard’s global responder for 45 years!

The U.S. Coast Guard has been the steward of the nation’s maritime environment for nearly 200 years. As a vital component of the National Response System and homeland security mission, the National Strike Force minimizes the human and environmental impact of oil discharges, hazardous material releases, Weapons of Mass destruction (WMD) incidents, and other natural and man-made disasters. The National Strike Force remains Semper Paratus, “always ready,” to expand and adapt its mission to ever-changing natural and man-made threats to the nation and its environment. The National Strike Force remains “Ready Relevant and Responsive” for any hazard, any place.

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This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

William H. Thiesen, Historian
Coast Guard Atlantic Area

1.An 1893 photograph of the 2,700-ton tanker Glückauf (meaning “good luck”) on the beach on Fire Island, Long Island, N.Y. (public domain image)
An 1893 photograph of the 2,700-ton tanker Glückauf (meaning “good luck”) on the beach on Fire Island, Long Island, N.Y. (public domain image)

The world’s best responders: any time, any place, any hazard.
Vision Statement, National Strike Force

The U.S. Coast Guard has been a steward of the nation’s maritime environment for nearly 200 years. For 45 of those years, the National Strike Force has helped protect the American people and the environment from the impacts of dangerous chemical discharges and hazardous material releases, and other natural and man-made disasters.

The Coast Guard became the nation’s environmental protector in 1822. That year, Congress tasked the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service with monitoring federal forest preserves that yielded ship timber for building Navy warships. During the 1800s, coal had been the fuel cargo commonly carried by merchant ships, but this solid fuel failed to pollute water like chemicals. In 1885, construction of the first purpose-built oil tanker Glückauf (German word for “good luck”) ushered in a new era of bulk shipping of chemicals and oil products. Ironically, in 1893, the Glückauf also marked the beginning of U.S. oil spill history in 1893, when it came ashore at Fire Island off Long Island, New York.

A National Strike Force Patch showing the unit’s distinctive seal. U.S. Coast Guard image.
A National Strike Force Patch showing the unit’s distinctive seal. U.S. Coast Guard image.

During the 20th century, oil and chemical shipping grew in importance and liquid petroleum products prevailed as ship fuel and cargo. The Coast Guard’s role in oil and chemical spill response officially began in 1924, when Congress passed the first Oil Pollution Act. This act provided the federal statutes that regulated the discharge of fossil fuels from seagoing vessels. During World War II, the federal government paid little attention to oil spills in the war zone; however, after the war, large chemical spills and hazardous waste events began to occur regularly. These included the Torrey Canyon oil spill in 1967 and the burning of Cleveland’s polluted Cuyahoga River in 1969. With greater frequency of these environmental disasters in the 1960s and early 1970s came an increased need to regulate oil shippers and improve the nation’s response to large chemical spills.

The National Strike Force (NSF) was established in 1973 as a direct result of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972. It began with three 17-member strike teams, including the Atlantic Strike Team in Elizabeth City, North Carolina; Gulf Strike Team in Mobile, Alabama; and Pacific Strike Team in Novato, California. The NSF’s responsibility to support the Federal Government’s National Response System expanded under further environmental legislation, including the National Oil and Hazardous Pollution Contingency Plan (NCP) of 1972, Clean Water Act of 1977, Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, and the Graham-Ruddman Act in 1986.

Oil spill occurrence continued to rise into the 1980s and seemed to reach a climax in 1989. That year, the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil. It was the largest oil spill in U.S. waters up to that time. Fallout from the Exxon Valdez disaster led to passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90). Enforcement of OPA 90 regulations became the Coast Guard’s single largest law enforcement assignment since Prohibition with the interdiction of illegal liquor in U.S. waters.

Atlantic Strike Team members walk through a decontamination line in level B response gear during an exercise, Aug. 28, 2007. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Cmdr. David Haynes.
Atlantic Strike Team members walk through a decontamination line in level B response gear during an exercise, Aug. 28, 2007. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Cmdr. David Haynes.

OPA 90 regulations required a more rapid response capability of the Coast Guard. The Atlantic Strike Team in Elizabeth City had been decommissioned in 1986, but it was re-commissioned in 1991 at Fort Dix, New Jersey. That same year, the National Strike Force Coordination Center (NSFCC) was stood-up at Elizabeth City. Establishment of the NSFCC took the National Strike Force to a new level of oversight, organization and support. In addition, operational imperatives, legislation, and presidential orders/directives in the 2000’s expanded and altered the NSF’s missions and capabilities even further to include new crisis leadership and management responsibilities.

Today’s National Strike Force is a globally available all-hazard response force comprised of 275 active duty, civilian, and Reserve personnel that provides response services to the Coast Guard, federal, state, tribal, and international governments. Its units now include the strike teams, NSF Coordination Center, Coast Guard Incident Management Assistance Team (CG-IMAT) and Public Information Assist Team (PIAT). The PIAT was set-up at Headquarters in 1972 and moved to Elizabeth City with the establishment of the NSFCC in 1991. The CG-IMAT was stood-up in 2013 as an Atlantic Area unit; however, in 2016, became part of the National Strike Force with its offices in Norfolk, Virginia.

Since its founding in 1973, the NSF has responded to countless events associated with hazardous materials. These events include the 1990 Persian Gulf War and 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom; hurricanes Floyd, Katrina, Rita, Harvey, Irma, Maria, Florence, Michael, and Super Typhoon Yutu; numerous oil spills including the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil rig; aviation accidents such as the 1999 Egypt Air and 2000 Alaska Airlines crashes; 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger loss; 2001 Anthrax attacks; and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. More recently, the NSF has responded to other all-hazard events, including the 2010 Haiti earthquake, train derailments, alien migration interdiction operations on the Southwest border, cyber security, destruction of Syrian chemical weapons, reunification of migrant children with their families, Ebola scares, flood response rescue operations, California wildfires, and drug interdiction operations.

Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon April 21. A Coast Guard MH-65C dolphin rescue helicopter and crew document the fire aboard the mobile offshore drilling unit Deepwater Horizon, while searching for survivors April 21. Multiple Coast Guard helicopters, planes and cutters responded to rescue the Deepwater Horizon's 126 person crew.
Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon April 21. A Coast Guard MH-65C dolphin rescue helicopter and crew document the fire aboard the mobile offshore drilling unit Deepwater Horizon, while searching for survivors April 21. Multiple Coast Guard helicopters, planes and cutters responded to rescue the Deepwater Horizon’s 126 person crew.

In 2007, the Coast Guard established the Deployable Operations Group (DOG) for specialized deployable units, such as Port Security Units, Law Enforcement Detachments and NSF teams. The DOG remained operational for six years. When it was disestablished in 2013, NSF teams and other Coast Guard specialized forces were consolidated under the command of the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area and Pacific Area as Deployable Specialized Forces or DSFs.

The U.S. Coast Guard has been the steward of the nation’s maritime environment for nearly 200 years. As a vital component of the National Response System and homeland security mission, the National Strike Force minimizes the human and environmental impact of oil discharges, hazardous material releases, Weapons of Mass destruction (WMD) incidents, and other natural and man-made disasters. The National Strike Force remains Semper Paratus, “always ready,” to expand and adapt its mission to ever-changing natural and man-made threats to the nation and its environment. The National Strike Force remains “Ready Relevant and Responsive” for any hazard, any place.

8.National Strike Force team members assisting in the aftermath of the terrorist attack. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
National Strike Force team members assisting in the aftermath of the terrorist attack. U.S. Coast Guard photo.