Few may choose to tread the long and narrow path but as the Bible tells us, it is the path that leads to something better and brighter. When first the PCG was separated from the PN, not many dared to cast their lots with it. What happened resonates deeply with the concept of maritime trade of olden days when a voyage is deemed an adventure redolent with risks and danger yet may unexpectedly turn into a highly profitable endeavor. The PCG experience is parallel to that part of maritime history. Yet it has now emerged successful in the gamble that it took 11 years ago. To date the PCG Bill or the law that seeks to not only update RA 5173 as amended but also to modernize and empower the Philippine Coast Guard has already reached 3rd reading in the Senate, thanks to the unanimous support of the Senate Committee on National Defense, Chaired by Sen. Rodolfo Biazon and the whole Philippine Senate. It has now been calendared to be presented in the bicameral session of Congress on November 2009.

            In anticipation of the passage of SB 3389, a cursory look into the salient provisions of the would be Coast Guard law will help everyone, PCG personnel and the public alike, to understand the Coast Guard as an entity. One of the most basic changes that SB No. 3389 made  is as follows:

            SEC 2. Establishment. – The Philippine Coast Guard, hereinafter referred to as the PCG, is hereby established as an armed and uniformed service attached to the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC): Provided, That in times of war,  as declared by congress, the PCG or parts thereof, shall be attached to the Department of Nationals Defense.

            This provision firmly establishes the PCG as an agency under the DOTC and no longer as a unit of the PN in effect elevating it to the level of the AFP and PNP. Sam Bateman in his article entitled Coast Guards: New Forces for Regional Order and Security said: “One observer spoke about ‘New Times for Old Navies’ concluding that: Turning  warships into lawships is a rational way ahead for future international society in which the costs of war are dramatically increasing and the benefits clearly decreasing”. This shows that since the world has seen the devastation man can wreak on himself through wars, it has preferred to deal with the daily necessity of co-existing in peaceful ways. The sight of grey naval ships automatically brings to mind war and hostilities while the white ships with blue and red stripes are viewed as rescuers, enforcers and protector of the marine environment. With SB No. 3389, the PCG is empowered to perform a myriad of maritime functions. Coast Guard function is succinctly described in the following:

            “They have to maintain safety in their waters, protect the marine environment, and generally maintain good order at sea. The prevention of marine pollution, illegal fishing, and criminal activity at sea (such as piracy and the various forms of smuggling) are now as much a part of national security as is defense against military threats. The ability to undertake these tasks is an important element of nation building and a large part of the rationale for establishing a coast guard.”(Bateman)

            Section 3, of SB No. 3389 provides for the Powers and Function of the PCG primary of which is the enforcement of regulations in accordance with all relevant maritime international conventions, treaties or instruments and national laws for the promotion of safety of life and property at sea within the maritime jurisdiction of the Philippines including but not limited to the conduct of port state control implementation. It also provides authority to inspect all merchant ships and vessels to ensure compliance to safety standards coupled with the power detain stop or prevent a ship or vessel which does not comply with safety standards, rules and regulations, from sailing or leaving port as well as the right to evaluate emergency readiness of merchant marine vessels. Further, PCG is also empowered to issue and enforce rules and regulations for the promotion of safety of life and property at sea on all maritime-related activities. In relation to navigational safety, SB No. 3389 mandates that Coast Guards shall coordinate, develop, establish, maintain and operate aids to navigation, vessel traffic system, maritime communications and search and rescue facilities within the maritime jurisdiction of the Philippines. It also includes the exercise of power to remove, destroy or tow to port, sunken or floating hazards to navigation, including illegal fish traps and vessels, at or close to sea lanes which may cause hazard to navigation and the marine environment.

            In  addition to maritime safety functions, the PCG still is mandated to continue on the protection of the marine environment which covers enforcement, promulgation and administration of rules and regulations for the protection of marine environment and resources from offshore sources of pollution within the maritime jurisdiction of the Philippines. It incorporates the power to develop oil spill response, containment and recovery capabilities against ship-based pollution.

            The Coast Guard is moreover mandated to assist in the enforcement and maintenance of maritime security, prevention or suppression of terrorism at sea, and performance of law enforcement functions in accordance with pertinent laws, rules and regulations, in conformity with the changes in the local and international maritime arena in the line with the conventions codes issued relating to the preceding incidents. Other incidents include assistance in enforcement of laws on fisheries, immigration, tariff and customs, forestry, firearms and explosives, human trafficking, dangerous drugs and controlled chemicals, transnational crimes and other applicable laws within the maritime jurisdiction of the Philippines.

            Lastly, the PCG continues to be reposed with the authority and responsibility to render aid to persons and vessels in distress and conduct search and rescue in marine accidents within the maritime jurisdiction of the Philippines, including the high seas, in accordance with applicable international conventions. Worthy of note is a comment made by a House Representative during a committee hearing of the Bill when it was still in the Lower House, who said that the responsibility to ensure safety and render aid during distress should never be the monopoly of any one government agency. That statement was made in response to those who raised objections on the stated functions of the Coast Guard in the Bill. Inline thereof, the PCG is authorized to enlist the services of other government agencies and the merchant marine fleet when the need arises. In connection with the responsibility to render aid to persons and vessels in distress, the Coast Guard is empowered with the right to investigate and inquire into the causes of all maritime accidents involving death, casualties and damage to properties.

            As  for the organization, the PCG will, as an attached agency of the DOTC, still be headed by a Commandant who will be assisted by Deputy Commandant with an officer corps and enlisted personnel. Salary and pay scale will still be as that of the AFP. Personnel administration like the disciplinary system will be  covered by the military justice system while the non-uniformed employees will be governed by the Civil Service Law.

            In summary, SB No. 3389 will not only provide a charter for the PCG but it also updates the organization and its function to keep the Coast Guard abreast with the changes and challenges that incidents and developments have ushered in. The voyage ahead will still  be littered with trials but with a law, the PCG’s direction will now be clearly plotted, making it easier for the organization to move ahead.