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Watershed Moment: MERPAC and Mariners Converge on NMC

The U.S. Coast Guard’s National Maritime Center will play host to the quarterly MERPAC meeting next week. The tenor and progress of this meeting will set the stage for the future success of the Coast Guard’s ambitious overhaul of its marine licensing and credential program.

When U.S. Coast Guard RDML Kevin Cook addresses the gathered throng at the National Maritime Center, mariners, maritime executives and perhaps the Coast Guard’s own regulatory arm itself, will get their first glimpse into what the new Director of Prevention Policy thinks about the marine credentialing program and where he hopes to take it in the near future. Other speakers will conspicuously join him, including the Coast Guard’s Mayte Medina, who will fill everyone in on what transpired last week in London at the IMO meetings. In the meantime, and as the Coast Guard ramps up to better meet the demands of mariners and their employers, not everyone thinks the program is going in the right direction. For that reason, the upcoming MERPAC meeting at NMC will be an important assembly for everyone. It will also be a watershed moment for the Coast Guard.

In July, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation held hearings on the challenges that the Coast Guard had experienced with the centralization of the mariner credentialing program, and most importantly, the lengthy processing time that was adversely impacting the lives of mariners needing their credentials to work in this economically challenging time. According to the Coast Guard, several factors led to excessive delays including: insufficient capacity to conduct medical reviews during the winter and early spring of 2009, a surge of applications submitted in advance of the deadlines to apply for a TWIC and the introduction of the new consolidated Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) in the spring as new software and production processes were implemented.

NMC’s Commanding Officer David C. Stalfort told MarEx this week that, “On July 6, a tiger team consisting of experienced people from Regional Exam Centers across the nation arrived at the NMC to assist evaluators in driving down the backlog of mariner credential applications, which had grown to 6,800 applications. Additionally, new changes to computer software used by the NMC were installed and have helped increase productivity. These efforts, and the hard work of the NMC evaluators, doubled the throughput of applications completed each day and the entire backlog of 6,800 applications was eliminated by the end of July. Most importantly, by the end of August, 14, 900 mariners received their credentials and the Coast Guard’s processing time decreased from an average of 54 days to an average of 31 days.”

Stalfort provided various charts as a summary of credentialing operations since January 2009. And, he assured MarEx that “the Coast Guard is fully committed to an effective and efficient Mariner Credentialing Program that will help sustain a safe and viable marine transportation system.” However, those reassurances are not likely good enough for a mariner population, which has thus far endured a less-than-smooth transition from the old system of 17 regional exam centers (REC). Previously, the REC’s took care of most credentialing issues on a local basis, face-to-face with mariners, and in a quicker fashion.

The ugly July U.S. House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation hearing on the credential centralization efforts, served notice that long after the last of the 17 REC’s had effectively been absorbed into the NMC in Martinsburg, widespread discontent was still expressed by a wide demographic of domestic maritime stakeholders. In our July 16 2009 editorial, providing coverage of that HEARING, the wrath of the seafaring unions and their advocates was clear. Two months later, the Coast Guard’s first opportunity to show what it has done to right the ship is now at hand. Widely publicized by a host of industry periodicals – including this one – the meetings are to be well attended.

The most recent chart depictions of improvements in Coast Guard NMC performance are encouraging. On the other hand, mariners and their advocates have already gone on record - at the July hearing - as saying, “For mariners, licensing is not about metrics, action plans, surging resources or outreach to the industry. It is about their ability to maintain employment that provides for their families, maintains their health care and pension benefits, and allows them to advance in the seafaring profession.” None of these people, I am told, care that the National Maritime Center is an “ISO 9001:2000 Compliant Organization.” Beyond this, I am also told by industry sources in a position to know that the Coast Guard’s new method for assessment of mariner fitness for duty, will likely be a hot topic for discussion.

For those maritime executives and managers who consider matters emanating from the Coast Guard’s NMC to be strictly pedestrian fare, it is well past time to reassess that position. And when the recovering economy begins to bring much-needed relief to a stressed maritime sector, the temporarily forgotten problem of mariner shortages – including recruitment, retention and training – will rear its ugly head again. At that point, whatever has happened at NMC will be doubly important. Sit up and pay attention: a watershed moment is defined as one that points to a moment in history at which point something significant happens, ushering in great changes. For the Coast Guard’s shiny new NMC, that remains to be seen. – MarEx.

MarEx Editor’s NOTE: TSAC is Sep 24/25 at NMC, MERPAC is the two days prior - Sep 22/23, also at NMC.
 

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Joseph Keefe is the Editor in Chief of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments on this editorial at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com. Join the Maritime Executive ‘Linked In’ group at by clicking http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/47685