A little-known federal outpost in the center of town has steadily been keeping watch over Maine's northern coast for the past 15 years.

The United States Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment's Belfast office, above the police station on Franklin Street, is responsible for monitoring the coast from Owls Head to the Canadian border, encompassing over 1,500 miles of shoreline.

MSD Belfast is part of the Coast Guard Sector Northern New England, based in Portland under the Department of Homeland Security.

Renamed and relocated to several locations since it began in Bucksport in 1974, the unit moved to its current location 2004.

Lt. John Ramos, the Belfast office's new supervisor, has been in town for just two weeks. Previously he was stationed in Chicago, San Francisco and New York. Ramos was assigned to the Belfast unit because he wanted to be a supervisor, and Belfast was one of the choices for this path within the Coast Guard.

He said the small department can cover such a large distance geographically because of its 12 "outstanding personnel" — a mix of officers, civilian and enlisted personnel. Auxiliary Coast Guard members, or screened volunteers, also help carry out the mission.

Ramos said the local office focuses primarily on prevention efforts, which include inspections of passenger vessels, both foreign and domestic; marine environmental response (pollution); marine casualty investigations; and facility inspections. The group also conducts commercial fishing vessel exams throughout the area and inspects vessels that visit local islands off the coast and many that operate commercially on Mount Desert Island.

A vessel inspection entails a qualified marine inspector attending a boat to make sure it is safe for commercial operations, Ramos said. The inspector will visit the boat with the operator, check engineering, safety equipment (life jackets, flares) and documentation, and ensure the master and crew are competent in their shipboard procedures.

"We also conduct emergency drills onboard vessels to ensure they can retrieve a person who has fallen overboard," he said. "Following the successful completion, the vessel is given paperwork that must be displayed onboard."

Inspections of commercial vessels are federally mandated, and while recreational boats still have to comply with local and state regulations, the Coast Guard does not formally inspect them, Ramos said.

The Coast Guard auxiliary does perform recreational boating safety exams. "They are our force multipliers," Ramos said. "They help assist the Coast Guard in many of our missions and spread the word about safe boating.

"While we do not operate a boat from this unit, we are constantly boarding vessels for inspections," he said. "For law enforcement and search and rescue missions, the Coast Guard has small boat stations along the coast of Maine that provide many of the distress services for the public."

Rockland, Southwest Harbor, Jonesport and Eastport have Coast Guard facilities where ships are dispatched for vessels in distress.

The Belfast office also employs two investigators who conduct marine casualty investigations in accordance with federal regulations.

Ramos said the majority of commercial vessels they inspect are considered passenger ships.

"… A good example of this is the cruise ships that pull into Bar Harbor," Ramos said. "Our office here in Belfast with the support from Sector Northern New England, our parent unit, conducts these exams. Other cargo products come into port via large freight vessels and pull into many of the facilities along the waterfront."

There are many paths to join the Coast Guard. "Our organization has both an active duty and reserve side, and members can enlist and go through Coast Guard Boot Camp in Cape May, New Jersey," he said. "Or apply to become an officer through other programs.

"The Coast Guard also has an Academy in New London, Connecticut. I joined though a special program, called College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative, which is very similar to ROTC. Essentially I went through both boot camp and Officer Candidate School."

The Coast Guard celebrates its 229th birthday on Aug. 4. Ramos said it is the oldest seagoing service and is "older than the Navy."

"That's a little zing at the Navy," he added.

Ramos said he is looking forward to working with the maritime community and has enjoyed his time in Belfast so far.

"I think this town and community (are) just great," he said.