image-harbor patrol
The San Mateo County Harbor Patrol is often the first agency to respond to an emergency in San Mateo County coastal waters. Kyle Ludowitz/Review

The San Mateo County Harbor District’s Harbor Patrol is often the first agency to respond to any water rescue or emergency at sea, and the patrol would also play an essential role during a natural disaster, such as a tsunami. 

Composed of about a dozen deputy harbormasters, the Harbor Patrol operates all day, every day, and is based out of Pillar Point Harbor. The majority of its response calls are for mechanical or operational boat problems, navigational issues, medical emergencies and an occasional search and rescue. The Pillar Point Harbor Patrol is the only patrol working all hours of the day from Santa Cruz to San Francisco. 

Seasoned Deputy Harbormaster Cary Smith taught a class last week to district staff on navigation awareness in observance of National Safe Boating Week, which is an effort to reinforce best practices when boating or otherwise on the water. 

Smith explained the most important piece of information to provide in a distress call is the last known location. Other questions include how many people are on board? What is a description of the vessel? Is there an anchor on board and can it be deployed?  

“But by and large, wear a life jacket. It saves lives,” Smith said. 

Deputy harbormasters use charts to map the depth of the ocean and pinpoint locations when vessels need assistance. 

“Oftentimes when we get calls for service, people will use landmark references,” Smith said. “So, we have to use our local knowledge to try and to decipher where the person is.” 

Beyond the day-to-day calls the Harbor Patrol responds to, it may also be called into service when an earthquake, wildfire or tsunami impacts the Coastside.

“The Harbor Patrol and district is going to do whatever it can to help the community, with the first level of that being response to the direct community within the harbor,” Smith said. 

In the event of a major wildfire, Smith explained there are plans in place with the Coastside Fire Protection District to work to pump seawater from the harbor into fire engines to supply water. The parking lots in the harbor are points of distribution for emergency supplies for any type of situation that warrants their use. 

“We may also provide limited medical response for the greater harbor area,” Smith said. 

Large boats can enter the harbor to bring emergency supplies or take people out of the area. However, Smith said it depends on whether the harbor is damaged from the incident.

Primary response from the Harbor Patrol is geared to tsunami relief and ensuring the 500 to 1,000 people in the harbor area are safe. Smith said the patrol coordinates with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services, California State Parks, Coastside Fire Protection District and other allied agencies. 

The rise of volunteer emergency preparedness groups, such as the Community Emergency Response Teams, has led Smith to consider starting a CERT for the people living in the harbor. There are about 100 to 200 people living at the harbor, estimates Smith. There is also a preliminary plan to create a kind of opt-in alert system to communicate with the people residing at Pillar Point about power outages and other emergencies. 

Smith, who’s been a deputy harbormaster since 2000, is in charge of training exercises and also serves as the public information officer for the patrol.

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