What Does the Coast Guard Do? (With Key Duties and FAQ)
Updated February 27, 2023
The Coast Guard is a part of the United States military that plays an important role in maintaining safety on and off the U.S. shorelines. Individuals in this branch of the military handle a variety of tasks regarding marine safety, search and rescue and port security. Understanding various aspects of their responsibilities can help you determine whether a career in the Coast Guard may be right for you.
In this article, we outline what the Coast Guard is, discuss what individuals in this role do and answer frequently asked questions about this branch of the military.
What is the Coast Guard?
The U.S. Coast Guard is a branch of the military responsible for different marine and rescue-related duties. Established in 1790, it's one of the nation's oldest seagoing services, helping protect the environment and the safety of national coastlines. members of the Coast Guard serve inland waterways as well and may participate in international operations, depending on the military's requirements.
Related: Military Careers: A Definitive Guide
What does the Coast Guard do?
The Coast Guard maintains the safety of U.S. residents by protecting national ports, conducting rescue missions and exercising sea border control. During times of war, or by direct order from the president, the Coast Guard can deploy as an active section of the U.S. Navy. Overall, the Coast Guard's mission divides into six different areas of operation:
Within the six areas of operations, the Coast Guard performs a variety of missions, including:
Waterway and port security
Waterway security is one of the Coast Guard's primary security missions. The Coast Guard ensures the safety of marine trade and residents who live near coastal areas. By protecting U.S. waterways, the Coast Guard also can help prevent acts of terrorism and prepare for potential attacks. This military branch maintains law enforcement standards to serve as a resource for anti-terrorism efforts. Teams within the Coast Guard undergo training to both discover and stop terrorist activity before an event occurs. Members can often detect weapons, install security zones and evaluate shoreline security.
Related: 17 Jobs in the Coast Guard Reserve
The Coast Guard functions as a primary line of defense against illegal drug transportation in the U.S. Communicating closely with other federal bureaus and nations, the Coast Guard patrols an area called the transit zone, which covers the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Their evaluation efforts help halt drug trafficking activities that can occur in this zone.
Search and rescue
Besides waterway security, search and rescue (SAR) operations remain one of the Coast Guard's primary responsibilities. Members handle missions such as helping boats in distress, preventing property damage and searching for missing persons. SAR response teams use tools such as various aircraft, mission stations and specialized boats to communicate with officials and conduct efficient rescue operations. The Coast Guard maintains SAR facilities in the following locations:
The Great Lakes
East and West coasts
Related: How To Become a Marine Pilot
The Coast Guard provides key navigation assistance for all U.S. marine vessels. They maintain signs, buoys, symbols, markers and lighthouses to ensure these tools function according to regulation standards. By maintaining these navigation aids, both commercial and recreational boaters can travel across waters safely and follow routes accurately.
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The Coast Guard helps promote safe boating practices by managing various mariner responsibilities. For instance, they may license mariners, track various ships and create safety programs. The Coast Guard also investigates any marine-related accidents by evaluating marine facilities, merchant vessels or drilling units. Volunteer members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary help teach recreational boat safety and perform various boat inspections.
Since the Coast Guard is the primary law enforcement agency for the U.S. coasts, they help enforce immigration laws at sea. By conducting patrols, the Coast Guard works to stop human trafficking operations. The Coast Guard works with various federal agencies and the governments of other countries to prevent immigrants who don't have legal authorization from entering the U.S. through marine routes.
As an extension of the military, the Coast Guard serves to protect the U.S. from threats such as terrorism or environmental hazards. The Coast Guard has four general defense objectives, including:
Marine interception operations
Port defense operations
Environmental defense operations
The Coast Guard communicates with various organizations to protect endangered marine wildlife. With assistance from the Marine Environmental Protection program, the Coast Guard both creates and enforces regulations to help prevent invasive species from altering the marine environment. The Coast Guard also helps prevent ocean waste dumping, and chemical and oil spills.
Below-zero temperatures can be dangerous for marine operations. To help promote marine safety in the Great Lakes, the Coast Guard undergoes ice-breaking operations. The Coast Guard also helps in ice-breaking operations surrounding the North and South Poles.
Frequently asked questions
Is the Coast Guard part of the military?
The Coast Guard is a part of the U.S. military but isn't a part of the U.S. Department of Defense. Instead, the Coast Guard is a military branch within the Department of Homeland Security. In the past, the Coast Guard was a part of the Department of Transportation and the Department of the Treasury.
How many people are in the Coast Guard?
The Coast Guard is the smallest military branch in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, approximately 41,000 full-time active duty members work in the Coast Guard, with nearly 26,000 volunteers for the Coast Guard's Auxiliary division. There are also nearly 10,000 civilians authorized to work for this military branch, including individuals in administrative and technical roles.
What's the difference between the Coast Guard and the Navy?
There are many differences between the Coast Guard and the Navy, including:
Size of the organization: The Navy has approximately 500,000 active-duty members, making it much larger than the Coast Guard.
Operation locations: The Navy operates internationally, while the Coast Guard mainly operates within the U.S.' waterways and along the country's coasts.
Overall purpose: The Navy maintains a war-ready fleet to secure the freedom of international waters, while the Coast Guard typically emphasizes marine law enforcement and protection within U.S. waters.
Related: Navy Officer Jobs Explained
How do you get into the Coast Guard?
Getting into the Coast Guard is a step-by-step process that requires you to have specific qualifications. All members are typically between the ages of 18 and 3, but candidates who are 17 years old can often join this military branch with a legal guardian's permission. The Coast Guard also requires you to get a high school diploma or GED before starting the screening and training process. If you prefer a formal training process, you can attend the Coast Guard Academy or the Officer Candidate School (OSC) to become a member of this military branch.
Here are the basic steps for getting into the Coast Guard:
Pass a medical exam. An authorized medical team member administers a series of tests to determine whether you can perform the duties of a Coast Guard member, including a strength exam. Depending on your circumstances, you may be able to submit a waiver to bypass this step.
Complete a background check. The Coast Guard typically checks your police records, as felonies may disqualify you from joining. If you previously served in the military, the Coast Guard may also review any relevant records.
Get a passing score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test. Created by the U.S. Department of Defense, the ASVAB measures your military aptitude to determine whether you're a good fit for the Coast Guard. Passing the exam typically requires a score of 40 or higher.
Complete basic training. To receive your first assignment, it's important to complete eight weeks of basic training at the Coast Guard Training Center. While there, you typically learn foundational information about the Coast Guard and develop important skills to complete your future duties.
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