Lt. Cliff Harder of Sector Houston/Galveston describes procedures to Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, during a safety and security inspection of a chemical carrier in the Houston Ship Channel. Allen has acknowledged that the Coast Guard's resources have been stretched thin. (Photos courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)
The Coast Guard hopes to hire hundreds of civilian inspectors and retired Coast Guard officers to bolster its beleaguered Marine Safety program.
Commandant Adm. Thad Allen proposed the idea of a "blended workforce" during testimony before a congressional panel in August.
Members of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation — and several mariners who testified — stated that the Coast Guard's focus on homeland security since 9/11 has diverted attention and resources away from the inspection of vessels and lifesaving gear, and the credentialing of mariners.
The shift has harmed the Marine Safety program, critics say, causing mariners to lose faith in the inspectors' level of expertise, professionalism and customer service. The Coast Guard realizes that post-9/11 responsibilities have made it harder to perform its traditional maritime functions.
"Both commerce and security requirements have grown since then, placing greater challenges on both industry and the Coast Guard," Allen said. "The Coast Guard acknowledges the concerns of industry and others that our operations in the wake of these events have placed greater emphasis on our security missions, sometimes at the expense of Marine Safety activities."
The subcommittee is considering Rep. James Oberstar's measure that would move the Marine Safety function to the Department of Transportation. Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, is chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
The roots of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety program go back to the very first Congress, which created the Lighthouse Establishment in 1789 (which later became commonly known as the Lighthouse Service); and to the 19th-century Steamboat Inspection Service. The Coast Guard formally took over broad marine safety duties in 1946.
Peter Lauridsen, regulatory affairs consultant with the Passenger Vessel Association, said the Coast Guard recently broke from its longstanding tradition of working in cooperation with mariners.
"The face that we see in the waterfront is now distinctly a military one, with guns, boots and the aura of martial law," Lauridsen said. "Prior to Sept. 11, the Coast Guard's proud military heritage was softened because it was seen first as an organization of seasoned marine safety professionals. Today's Coast Guard, in many ways, is a stranger on the working waterfront."
Ken Wells, president of the Offshore Marine Services Association, questioned whether the Coast Guard still views marine safety as a high priority. His industry had been accustomed to working in close partnership with the Coast Guard.
"Today we see that relationship as being at some risk," Wells said. "It is getting harder to know where Marine Safety sits on the organizational chart, from top to bottom."
B.W. "Tom" Thompson, executive director of the U.S. Marine Safety Association, said some lifesaving-equipment servicing facilities haven't seen a Coast Guard inspector in over a decade. Thompson said, by default, the industry has become "self-policing."
Oberstar and other members of Congress suggested that the Marine Safety program shouldn't be staffed by uniformed Coast Guard personnel who rotate in and out of the program every couple of years. Instead, the inspectors should be permanent civilian employees, who would amass years of experience and expertise — similar to the professional staff at the Federal Aviation Administration or Army Corps of Engineers.
The fleet of Coast Guard-inspected vessels now numbers about 11,800. While the number of vessels is growing, Rep. Timothy Bishop, a New York Democrat, noted that the experience level of the safety inspectors is not.
Lt. Michael Adams, a marine safety inspector from Marine Safety Office Mobile, inspects a pressure vacuum valve aboard the 808-foot, Liberian-flagged oil tanker Crude Ocean, during a marine safety boarding in December 2002.
"It seems to me as if we're constantly replacing semi-experienced people with inexperienced people, who then become semi-experienced, and then they move on to their next assignment," Bishop said.
William Doyle, director of government affairs with the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, said the Coast Guard needs to hire civilians for these Marine Safety jobs. MEBA also believes the tours of duty are too short under the current system.
"This does not allow for uniformed personnel to obtain the necessary on-the-job expertise that they need to effectively fulfill the mission. Many of the actual vessel inspection teams are led by younger Coast Guard officers, many of whom have spent little time at sea and have little experience with commercial vessels," Doyle said.
"Yet they are often responsible for ensuring the safety and regulatory compliance of hundreds of vessels within their sectors. And, by the time they are comfortable with their responsibilities, they are rotated out to their next duty assignments," he said. "We feel that extending these tours of duty will ensure stability and consistency across sectors and allow for greater expertise and experience for the Coast Guard officers assigned to those billets."
Allen said the Coast Guard believes in the concept of a "broadened specialist" who attains a familiarity with several Coast Guard functions, better qualifying that person for promotion to top-brass administrative ranks. Still, the Coast Guard could consider lengthening the Marine Safety assignments, the commandant said.
The culture and hierarchy of maritime life can be an important factor in how professional mariners perceive the government inspectors who board their ships. The United States is one of the few maritime nations that doesn't appoint veteran mariners as full-time safety inspectors.
An inexperienced U.S. Coast Guard-enlisted person usually isn't qualified to judge the work habits of a seasoned ship officer, said George Quick, vice president of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots.
"That's an insult to the master and chief engineer," Quick said, "that they send a second class petty officer down to make a determination of whether he's doing things right or wrong or investigating his actions. That's not acceptable to us. They do it, but most of us rankle at it…The foreign masters — the Germans and the British — take offense that they haven't sent an officer down or a civilian with a maritime background."
Capt. Richard Block, secretary of the Gulf Coast Mariners Association, said the military structure of the Coast Guard intimidates mariners who nowadays don't have as much armed-services experience as previous generations did. This stifles the voices of mariners, especially lower-level ones who may not have even a high-school diploma. These mariners feel powerless if the Coast Guard doesn't process their license applications or investigate their casualties properly — and it imperils their very livelihoods.
"The Coast Guard gained control over the merchant marine during World War II at a time of national emergency as a temporary expedient. However, after the end of the war, a postwar reorganization act did not return it to civilian control," Block said. "We believe the time has come to consider (returning control of) a number of merchant marine functions to merchant marine officers."
Other mariners proposed recruiting ex-Coasties to serve as safety inspectors.
"I would ask for bringing in retired officers that still have 15 or 20 years of service ahead of them who have the experience to have an informed judgment when they do a ship inspection," Quick said. "The Coast Guard needs a civilian inspection force that covers port state control, ship inspection, licensing and safety inspections."
Allen said the Coast Guard is making technological improvements to its mariner licensing system, has increased cooperation with maritime industry stakeholders and intends to smooth customer service at the ports. The commandant said "we lack capacity" in the Coast Guard safety rule-making function, and that the new Transportation Worker Identification Credential "presents a challenge" to document processing.
The Coast Guard believes it's not practical to create an all-civilian Marine Safety inspection division anytime soon. As its array of duties becomes stretched, the Coast Guard instead envisions a combination of the existing uniformed inspection corps and new civilian hires who can bolster those ranks. The trick, Allen emphasized to the congressional members, is to provide enough funding.
"That takes a blended workforce," Allen said. "I think we are competent to do this mission. I think there are resource issues involved."
Allen also announced the appointment of Rear Adm. Brian Salerno to the new position of assistant commandant for marine safety, security and stewardship.
The subcommittee asked Allen to provide a suggested framework for how the new blended Marine Safety program might be structured within the Coast Guard. Allen promised to submit a proposed organizational chart within 60 days after the August hearing.
At least one influential congressman recognizes the need for more funding for Marine Safety reforms.
"We saw the Coast Guard's duties get stretched, stretched, stretched," said subcommittee chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings, "but we didn't see the resources and moneys get stretched." The Maryland Democrat compared that predicament to a rubber band that, if stretched enough, will eventually break.
When asked if mariners would be willing to pay higher licensing fees to fund a more efficient system with civilian hires, Quick said ordinary seamen probably can't afford higher fees. But he said masters and high officers may be willing to pay more "if they got their licenses on time and were treated with courtesy and respect."
Oberstar said he sees no relation between the Coast Guard's homeland security functions and marine safety. "Put (Marine Safety) in the Department of Transportation where you can have longtime career professionals doing that job," Oberstar said.
At least two of the congressmen rejected the idea of stripping the Coast Guard of the Marine Safety responsibility. "You don't fix a problem by transferring the problem to another agency," said Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska. Rep. Howard Coble, a North Carolina Republican and former member of the Coast Guard, said Congress shouldn't create "a second Coast Guard."
Allen rejected the argument that homeland security and marine safety are unrelated.
"You get a benefit to security when you improve safety," the commandant said. "You get a benefit to safety when you improve security."
Mariners at the hearing generally agreed that the Coast Guard should have an opportunity to fix the problem internally first.
"It could probably be done within the Coast Guard system," Block said. "I think we need to get more civilian mariners involved."
Doyle agreed and awaits Allen's proposal, but said, "If it fails, I think all avenues need to be explored, including that" idea of moving Marine Safety responsibilities to the Department of Transportation.