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What does the Coast Guard do?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The function of a coast guard varies, depending on the nation where it is located. Almost every nation which has a shoreline has this type of organization, but its nature can vary from a branch of the military to an all-volunteer civilian agency. Members of the coast guard, known as “Coasties” in some regions, can perform an assortment of tasks related to navigation, national security, and ocean safety. They are usually posted in harbors, and may maintain fleets of trucks, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and other support vehicles in addition to boats.

Origins of the modern coast guard can be found in the 1800s, when several communities established civilian groups to aid ships in distress. These groups would send out rescue and salvage operations as needed, and many of them supported organized government efforts to create navigational markers like buoys and lighthouses. The improvements in maritime safety created by such groups spurred the organization of more formal coast guards.

When a coast guard is organized by the government, it is usually a cross between the military and a law enforcement agency. Members are responsible for protecting the shoreline, enforcing immigration and drug laws, and monitoring vessels for safety issues. Members are also expected to assist vessels upon request. Maintaining navigational markers and warnings is also generally the responsibility of this organization.

Civilian organizations tend to focus on things like search and rescue, maritime research, assistance to distressed vessels, and public safety outreach. Military coast guards also perform these tasks. Civilians generally cannot get involved in law enforcement, although they may report issues which appear to pertain to national security to government officials. A civilian group may be a privately funded agency with paid employees, or an all-volunteer force. Rural and isolated regions may rely on volunteers because the population cannot support a full-time coast guard.

In the case of coast guards associated with the military, members are treated as active duty members of the military, which entitles them to the same pay and benefits that members of other military branches receive. Guards are generally kept posted in their home nations for security, but they can potentially be deployed to other locations, and they may be loaned to law enforcement agencies and allied nations to assist with projects like arresting drug smugglers or improving border safety programs.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon330642 — On Apr 17, 2013

I think the Coast Guard is a great opportunity to serve our country and a great experience in the nation's military.

By cougars — On May 31, 2011

@GenevaMech- The requirements to become a Coast Guard officer are a little more stringent than those for gaining access to the Coast Guard Academy (You do not need to attend the academy to become an officer). The Officer Candidate School (OCS) is a separate 17-week program independent of the Academy. This school is open to college graduates, or current college seniors for both active duty and reserves, and offers a path to leadership for those that did not attend the academy.

To make it into the OCS you will need to take a more technical bachelor's degree program that prepares you for one of the numerous areas where officers serve (ashore, ship, flight, etc.). The Coast Guard does not have an ROTC program, so you should focus on degrees in management, engineering, environmental or physical science and the likes. If you have a 2.5 GPA or have received your degree, are in great physical shape, and within the age requirements, you have met the minimum qualifications.

By Amphibious54 — On May 29, 2011

@GenevaMech- From what I understand, the Coast Guard Academy requirements are stringent. Most candidates have at least an 1100 combined SAT or 24 ACT score, are in good physical shape, are unmarried, and have no debt. You will also need three recommendations; one from a math teacher, one from an English teacher, and one from your coach or physical education instructor.

If you are already in the military, you will also need a recommendation from your CO. In addition to all of these requirements, you will need to pass a rigorous physical fitness examination.

By GenevaMech — On May 26, 2011

What does it take to gain acceptance to the Coast Guard Academy? I am going into my senior year in the fall, and I would like to weigh my options. I do well in school, and I play team sports so I am in good enough shape to make it into service. I have a family member who has served the country, so I thought that the coast guard would be something that interests me. My eventual goals are to gain a degree in engineering as well as become an officer or other leader in the Coast Guard.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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