Coast Guard credential processing center is making progress but problems persist

Under Capt. David Stalfort, the Coast Guard is trying to improve the processing of mariner documents at its new National Maritime Center in West Virginia. (Dom Yanchunas)

A couple of years ago, the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Maritime Center (NMC) was a relatively small office in Arlington, Va., with just 32 employees. Its only licensing-related duties were oversight of courses and exams and relaying paperwork for medical waivers.

Today, a new NMC in West Virginia is the site of all credentialing for the nation’s 212,000 licensed professional mariners. With its own staff of health professionals, the NMC has begun conducting actual medical reviews. It also completes mariners’ security and criminal checks and audits courses. Its work force is up to 227.

Under the leadership of Capt. David Stalfort, the nation’s merchant mariner licensing function was moved to the NMC, in Martinsburg, W.Va., in 2008. Previously, mariner credentials were issued at the Coast Guard’s 17 Regional Examination Centers (RECs).

The standardization and centralization at the NMC was completed a few months ago. Now Stalfort is concentrating on automating the system to make it more efficient. While the mariner and the NMC still must shuffle a lot of papers around, the Coast Guard eventually intends to do almost everything by computer.

“What we want to build is the TurboTax for merchant mariners,” Stalfort said during a visit by Professional Mariner in April.

Before the NMC took over mariner licensing duties from the RECs, mariners often faced inconsistent policies and varying wait times in different regions of the country. The centralization has corrected many of the most serious problems, although a growing backlog in the Coast Guard’s medical review process caused issuance delays in late 2008 and early 2009.

Capt. Joe Dady, president of the National Mariners Association, expects the highly computerized system centralized at the NMC eventually to improve the efficient handling of mariner credentials. Until then, the process continues to confound license applicants and hurts their ability to go to work.

“The system is there, but it’s not up and running completely, and our guys are still suffering,” Dady said in May. “We believe the system, when it’s up and running, will correct a lot of the problems and the hardships that are being created now.”

The previous paper-heavy system not only caused delays in filing and mailing, but it also made it impossible for the Coast Guard to measure its successes and failures in processing licenses accurately and issuing them in a timely manner. Some applicants, especially those with complicated health problems, faced wait times of over a year.

Stalfort, who earned a master’s degree in business administration from Colorado State University, is applying private-sector models including Total Quality Management and Six Sigma, which uses statistics to identify and eliminate defects in processes. During a tour of the NMC, Stalfort showed a visitor a training room with walls covered with charts illustrating myriad areas where statistics are being gathered to target and correct problems.

“We have built a staff that’s actively helping us with our quality assurance,” Stalfort said. “We want to measure the process like any business would measure their manufacturing process.”

In January 2009, it took an average of 91 days for the NMC to process a license application, including requests for missing information, exams and mailing. By May, the average was down to 70 days. Half were finished in 32 days or less.

The large part of the improvement was an aggressive effort to reduce delays in the medical review process, which had overwhelmed the NMC’s fledgling staff of health professionals. The Coast Guard called in a corps of temporary reviewers, and Stalfort plans to boost the ranks of the NMC’s full-time medical staff to prevent such a backlog from accumulating again.

To help answer mariners’ questions about the licensing process, the NMC established a Mariner Information Call Center at 1-888-IASKNMC. Initially it had a staff of four. Extremely high call volume forced the Coast Guard to boost the staff to 21 in April. Still, a notice on the NMC’s Web site in May continued to urge mariners to send questions via an e-mail form instead.

Mike Rodriguez, executive assistant to the president of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, said the Call Center staff weren’t very knowledgeable — at least at first. Dady agrees.

“I’ve gotten some mixed reviews from the help line. That could be staffing and it could be training issues. We are willing to reserve judgment on that. We do understand that people have to be brought up to speed,” Rodriguez said.

“The problem is, when you call, you almost always get someone who does not know and does not understand, and a lot of times the mariner asks a question and is given incorrect information,” Dady said. “Mariners need to engage the process completely when they run into a problem. They need to question the evaluator. Don’t assume that, because they are the National Maritime Center, they know.”

While some REC contractors have been let go, the REC staffs of government employees have been kept at the same level, Stalfort said. That has enabled RECs to concentrate on helping mariners put their applications in order before mailing them to the NMC. Eventually, mailing will not be necessary because the RECs will accept the mariners’ paper forms, enter the data into a computer and send them to the NMC electronically, Stalfort said.

“They’re doing a quality screen of all applications to help the mariner,” Stalfort said in May. “The mariner shows up at the counter, and they’ll quickly go through the application to make sure it’s all together and ready to send to the NMC.”

Although Stalfort said all REC staffs have been trained to do this, Rodriguez said the results aren’t satisfactory yet.

“Some of the RECs are not treating the mariners very well,” Rodriquez said. “The staff at the RECs don’t really understand the changeover and what their responsibilities are. I’ve gotten feedback that there are some frustrations that are playing out with the Coast Guard personnel themselves. That may point to a gap in the Coast Guard’s ability to get policies pushed out to the RECs.”

To increase the number of sites where mariners can receive assistance with licensing, the Coast Guard intends to enroll a corps of outside “trusted agents,” Stalfort said. “We have over 200 companies or individuals who have asked to become ‘trusted agents,’ so we’ll roll that out as quickly as we can,” he said.

The Coast Guard is adding online tools to help the mariners and employers keep track of applications and requirements. By this summer, the NMC Web site will include a “Credential Application Wizard” that resembles a simulated “automated interview” to help applicants ensure that they have gathered all the necessary information to submit to the NMC, Stalfort said. There will be an electronic verification system for employers to confirm the status and authenticity of a mariner’s credentials.

As recently as the autumn of 2007, the NMC was still a relatively small office in Arlington, Va. Its only duties in direct support of merchant mariners were writing and approving exams and approving courses, plus accepting medical waiver documents from the RECs and relaying them to Coast Guard physicians for review. The NMC didn’t supervise the RECs, which reported to the various sector commands.

At the time, the NMC’s main job was managing the National Vessel Documentation Center, Marine Safety Center and Marine Safety Lab. The staff also published the Coast Guard safety journal Proceedings. All of those duties have since been shifted to Coast Guard headquarters.

After a short period in temporary offices at Kearneysville, W.Va., the NMC in 2008 moved into 60,000 square feet of leased space at a brand new suburban office complex in Martinsburg. The building is located along U.S. Route 11 in an area of strip malls and chain stores, about a 90-minute drive northwest of Washington, D.C.

Hardly any of the NMC’s employees are professional mariners. Stalfort wants them to become familiar with the mariner’s life and nautical terminology, so the NMC has placed photographs of various maritime vocations on the walls. Many areas have been assigned a nautical name, such as the “Fo’c’s’le Room.”

One section that does employ licensed mariners is the Marine Training & Assessment Division, which reviews and approves maritime courses and exams. In February 2009, the Coast Guard began the Course Oversight and Auditing Program, which will make announced and unannounced visits at hundreds of approved-course sites around the country and evaluate them.

The Security Branch, which conducts criminal background checks and reviews drug and alcohol records, is staffed by several people with law-enforcement experience.

The National Mariners Association, formerly known as the Gulf Coast Mariners Association, would like to see the NMC add one additional office: someone to defend the interests of the license applicants.

“We’d advocate that the National Maritime Center have an ombudsman placed at the center to represent the mariner (with) the ability to override some of the decisions that get made,” Dady said.

The NMC now has a $20 million dollar annual operating budget. That figure covers costs for the licensing program at the NMC and RECs and contractors, but it doesn’t include salaries for the government employees.

Maritime stakeholders are cautiously optimistic that the centralization and computerization will succeed.

“Efforts to automate processes, in general, are good,” Rodriguez said. “The goals are good, but we have to be careful that the Coast Guard isn’t automating a bad process that is flawed from the beginning.”

Rodriguez said Masters, Mates & Pilots believes the Coast Guard is making its medical reviews too complicated for even itself. Instead of analyzing all health tests at Martinsburg, the NMC should rely on the findings of the mariner’s own physician, the union said.

“We think the system is inherently unfair,” Rodriguez said. “The Coast Guard is trying to determine mariners’ fitness for duty by remote control. Someone who actually sees the mariner is in the best position to determine that. … The medical profession has rules and it has standards, and it can do those medical evaluations.”

In the past, mariners with serious health problems went “doctor shopping” or “REC shopping” until they found someone who would deem them fit to work in the industry, said Capt. Matthew Hall, chief of the NMC’s medical evaluation branch. The NMC now analyzes hometown physicians’ data to make more consistent decisions based on the Coast Guard’s maritime-safety expertise.

Dady, whose organization represents “lower-level” or “limited-tonnage” mariners, praised Stalfort’s commitment and abilities to get the job done.

“It’s all coming together, and there are improvements on the table, and I think the captain is on the right track,” Dady said. “The automation is the only way to fix it. … There have been several improvements, but there are still a lot of issues.”

Stalfort says none of the unfinished reforms would require additional congressional spending. He said a highly effective NMC is a top priority with Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen.

“We have the authority to do what we need to do, and the commandant supports that,” Stalfort said.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff