Coast Guard pledges to end delays in license renewals


The Coast Guard is centralizing licensing processing at its new National Maritime Center in West Virginia. (Photos courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)
No license renewal can mean no livelihood for mariners like Capt. Mike Challancin.

Challancin, who runs boat tours on Florida's Lake Okeechobee, delivered his license renewal forms to the Coast Guard in early March 2007. When Challancin sat down for Thanksgiving dinner, he still didn't have his new captain's credential.

The 67-year-old captain calls the delay a "ridiculous situation" that is intolerable for mariners who face stiff fines if they continue working without an up-to-date license.

"I feel like I've been treated very unfairly," said Challancin, 67. "Imagine not receiving any written response from the Coast Guard until the middle of October. That's seven months. That's just not right."

In recent years, the average wait for captain's license renewal processing has grown to almost three months — with some cases logjammed for as long as eight months. Now, the Coast Guard pledges that relief is on the way for mariners who have faced the infuriating wait.

The Coast Guard is centralizing mariners' license processing at the National Maritime Center (NMC) in West Virginia. Previously, the paperwork and background checks were handled at 17 regional offices.

Capt. David C. Stalfort, the National Maritime Center's commanding officer, said processing the files at one central office will improve the accuracy, speed and consistency in credential renewals.

"What I'm promising the mariner is that you're going to be delighted with the experience, instead of in the past you were sometimes humiliated by the experience," Stalfort told Professional Mariner in November. "You're going to have faster processing times and better customer service."

Capt. David C. Stalfort, the NMC's commanding officer.

Stalfort's NMC is installing records-processing and file-tracking software in the Martinsburg, W.Va., facility and is standardizing the mariner medical review process there. In the meantime, the processing functions are gradually being moved from the 17 Regional Examination Centers to the single NMC location.

When the Transportation Worker Identification Credential goes into effect, the exam centers will no longer fingerprint mariners. The RECs will remain open as regional service kiosks, where staff will shift their attention to assisting mariners with their applications, Stalfort said.

In early 2007, the average license renewal took 85 days to process after the mariner submitted all necessary paperwork. Stalfort calls that wait time "totally unacceptable." By November 2007, the processing time generally ranged from 10 to 28 days at the NMC.

"My goal is to get it down to less than 48 hours, and for some services, get it down to same-day service like we did years ago," Stalfort said.

The International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P) said the speedier license renewals — with fewer inconsistencies and mistakes by Coast Guard staff — are a long time in coming.

In recent years, "the process was getting held up and was taking quite a bit longer than it should have," said Mike Rodriguez, executive assistant to Timothy A. Brown, the MM&P president.

"In particular, medical reviews were taking quite a long time," Rodriguez said. "We've had people complain that it was taking seven or eight months to get renewals done. Why couldn't it take less than a couple of weeks to get it done?"

It's the medical review that is apparently holding up Challancin's application. The Everglades airboat captain takes medication for diabetes and high blood pressure. His medical exams clearly show however, that he is healthy enough to receive a renewal of his license to captain a vessel with six or fewer passengers in the Intracoastal Waterway.

While Challancin waited months for the Coast Guard to process his renewal, his previous license expired. Fortunately, he has not yet missed any of his busy tourist season, which runs from February through April. Still, he's left wondering exactly when the Coast Guard will finally issue his new credential.

Challancin said the Coast Guard's Miami REC received his application March 3 and processed his $95 fee March 9. After three months, he heard nothing, so he phoned the REC to check the status. He was told he needed to submit two more blood tests, and he did.

Again, Challancin heard nothing until he finally received a letter in October requesting additional blood tests, an eye test and unspecified "amplifying information" from his physician.

"In the first letter, they said I had one year from the date of the letter to meet the requirements, and the letter wasn't even dated," Challancin said. "This is going from the sublime to the ridiculous, as far as I'm concerned. Had I dreamt it would take this long, I would have sent in my application a year ago or something."

Paul McElroy, whose McElroy Maritime Consulting assists mariners with their licensing paperwork, said the renewal delays worsened about five years ago when the process changed. Application forms became more complicated, and renewing mariners needed to report to the RECs for interviews.

"The paperwork used to be relatively simple. Any old grizzly charter boat captain with three days of beard growth could sit down at his kitchen table and fill out the paperwork and send it to the Coast Guard," McElroy said. "When they revamped the forms five years ago, they revamped them in the mind-set of the people sitting there evaluating the paperwork instead of the mind-set of the poor slob who has to fill them out. So the error rate is higher than it ever was."

"If there's one little mistake, they send the whole thing back" to the mariner, McElroy said. "They just return it for the smallest item. That's the kind of thing Stalfort is trying to fix."

Masters, Mates & Pilots is in favor of a speedier process but wonders if centralization is the best way to do it.

"We're very concerned that some of the local knowledge will be lost as they move the process to the National Maritime Center," Rodriguez said. "One of the things we're starting to see is when the mariner comes in with his credentials and he has a number of endorsements, when he gets his documents back from the National Maritime Center, some of those endorsements are gone. You may lose the ability of these (RECs) to inform the process. We're concerned that there's less input from someone who is perhaps closer to the mariner and closer to the industry."

Too many bad things were happening when each REC applied the Coast Guard rules in its own way, Stalfort said.

"Despite any good intentions of the headquarters managers to send out policy guidance, 17 different people in 17 different regions will interpret it differently," Stalfort said. "It became very difficult to manage that. The mariners started shopping around for the best REC, and that caused a lot of problems, and it wasn't good service."

The standardization process has about 20 different components that are taking effect gradually over the next few months. A help desk (888-427-5662) has been added at the NMC, many applications and forms will be available on the Internet and RECs are being transformed into mariner advocates. The Coast Guard is also designing a bulk-application process for academies, schools and maritime groups.

The industry is hoping Stalfort truly can bring order to the renewal process. Mariners' inability to predict how long it will take to get their credentials has caused a lot of anxiety on the waterfront.

"They're scared to death," McElroy said, "because if they go out and get caught working with an expired license, it's a $5,000 fine."

Stalfort said license creep is being eliminated. That means, even if the mariner applies months ahead of time, the new license takes effect on his old license's expiration date. Previously, the new license became valid when it was processed, in effect making the duration of licenses shorter than they were supposed to be.

License creep discouraged mariners from submitting their renewal application far in advance. At the same time, they still don't know with certainty how many months the process will take.

"We can all live with 30 days to get your credentials back," Rodriguez said. "Then you can plan. If it's taking seven or eight months, it's difficult to plan."

Mariners will still visit the RECs to verify their identity and take their tests. After an application is accepted at the REC, all communications with the mariner will come directly from the NMC.

McElroy visited the NMC in October to meet Stalfort and learn about the centralization improvements. He calls Stalfort "a dynamo" who is truly improving the system.

"I went in there a skeptic," McElroy said. "I left totally impressed. They really are making some positive changes. Standardization is the key, and that's what I see is going to happen, but it's going to take some time."

By Professional Mariner Staff