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How the U.S. Coast Guard Works

Coast Guard Hierarchy

The Coast Guard is the smallest of the U.S. armed forces, with approximately 34,000 active members (not counting the reserve and auxiliary), but the Coast Guard's fleet is the 7th largest navy in the world [Source: Global Security]. It is a military service, although it is not a part of the Department of Defense. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Coast Guard was transferred from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Homeland Security. In the past, the Coast Guard has been placed under Department of Defense jurisdiction (within the Department of the Navy) during wartime, and current federal laws authorize this to be done at the authorization of Congress or the president.

The Coast Guard is headed by the Commandant of the Coast Guard, a position held as of 2007 by Admiral Thad Allen. Coast Guard operations are then divided into Atlantic and Pacific commands, with a Vice Admiral in charge of each region. The commands are subdivided into nine districts (they are not numbered consecutively, which is why there are districts with numbers above nine).

This map shows the location of all nine distrincts of the Atlantic and Pacific Coast Guard commands.
Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Navigation Center
This map shows the location of all nine distrincts of the Atlantic and Pacific Coast Guard commands.

The Atlantic commands:

  • District 1 - New England, eastern New York and northern New Jersey
  • District 5 - Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina
  • District 7 - South Carolina, Georgia, eastern Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands
  • District 9 - All inland waters in the middle United States, the Gulf of Mexico

The Pacific commands:

Each district is divided into sectors. Each sector is responsible for protecting inland waterways and coastal waters within the U.S. Economic Exclusion Zone (any water within 200 miles of shore). For example, Sector St. Petersburg, within District 7, is responsible for the western coast of Florida, plus a large portion of the Gulf of Mexico. Sector Buffalo is responsible for the Lake Erie and Lake Ontario shorelines and a segment of the St. Lawrence Seaway [Source: United States Coast Guard]. The operational centers within each sector are stations, which ships and boats use as a home base, and air stations, where Coast Guard air support crews are based.

The Coast Guard generally uses the same order of rank as the U.S. Navy.

Official Coast Guard Ranks and Abbreviations
Commissioned Officers
Warrant Officers
Enlisted Soldiers
Admiral (ADM)
Chief Warrant Officer 4 (WO-4)
Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard (MCPOCG)
Vice Admiral (VADM)
Chief Warrant Officer 3 (WO-3)
Command Master Chief Petty Officer (CMCPO)
Rear Admiral - Upper Half (RADM - UH)
Chief Warrant Officer 2 (WO-2)
Master Chief Petty Officer (MCPO)
Rear Admiral - Lower Half (RADM - LH)

Senior Chief Petty Officer (SCPO)
Captain (CAPT)

Chief Petty Officer (CPO)
Commander (CDR)

Petty Officer 1st Class (PO1)
Lieutenant Commander (LCDR)

Petty Officer 2nd Class (PO2)
Lieutenant (LT)

Petty Officer 3rd Class (PO3)
Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG)

Seaman (SN)
Ensign (ENS)

Seaman Apprentice (SA)

Seaman Recruit (SR)
Source: DefenseLink United States Military Rank and Insignia

Next, we'll look at the ships and aircraft that the Coast Guard use.