Officers aboard National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) vessels are somewhat of a hybrid. They are likely to be experts in fields like engineering, oceanography and fisheries science, but they also have to be able ship handlers and officers.
Consequently they must pass a rigorous training program before being assigned to any one of the 19 ships operated by NOAA.
For some, that training is becoming a little more rigorous. And it will occur at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.
Until last year NOAA had been sending its mariners to the Global Maritime and Transportation School (GMATS) for officer candidate training on the campus of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point. But the closing of GMATS in July 2012 left NOAA officials with a difficult choice: Start their own program or collaborate with the Coast Guard Academy. They chose the Coast Guard.
“It just makes sense,” said Lt. Cmdr. G. Mark Miller, NOAA Corps Officer Training Center chief, who was one of the first NOAA graduates at Kings Point when the program opened 14 years ago.
“Our support and training provided through GMATS was top level and we were sad to see it shut down,” Miller said. “We had 14 years of development, fine tuning and lessons learned together with a great staff to support NOAA.”
But there was much to gain by joining forces with the Coast Guard, which already had a long-established academic program and was equipped with its own simulators, vessels and training facilities. The first 12 NOAA officer corps trainees reported to the academy on Aug. 18 for an 18-week course that ended on Dec. 21.
While NOAA administrators are pleased with the results, trainees are having to adapt to an intense form of military discipline, Miller said.
NOAA’s larger mission places it mostly in the civilian sphere of the maritime world and its need for academically oriented personnel has set it apart from the other uniformed services. Many of its trainees are older than typical military trainees and are well into other careers.
“Polishing shoes and a ‘high and tight’ haircut are probably not our biggest recruiting tools,” Miller said. NOAA candidates are not sent home “if they can’t do 50 pushups.”
Nevertheless, “NOAA trainees are feeling the pangs of having a lot more supervision than previous classes,” said U.S. Coast Guard Academy Officer Candidate School instructor Lt. James Bendle. “They would have four supervisors at Kings Point — now they have 17. The microscope is closer. It’s more challenging now than previous classes.”
To help preserve NOAA’s cultural differences, officials chose to retain a NOAA officer to oversee “indoctrination,” or drill instruction, although both branches often work as one unit in the barracks and in training programs that benefit from closer discipline.
“There is no doubt that the NOAA training is intense,” Miller said, adding that the current primary indoctrination officer is a former Marine. “But we are not an armed service.”
Nevertheless, the administration’s mission takes NOAA personnel to some of the most inhospitable places on Earth and trainees will certainly benefit from Coast Guard leadership training, he said. But “the principal objectives of the NOAA corps officer training have stayed the same,” Miller said.