According to Joe Keefe’s editorial in The Maritime Executive (MarEx), next week’s meeting of the Merchant Marine Personnel Advisory Committee (MERPAC) at the Coast Guard’s National Maritime Center (NMC) in Martinsburg, WV may be a watershed moment for the future of the entire licensing program, and I agree. The million-dollar question is which direction are we headed in? Is the Coast Guard altering course (and attitude) for the better or continuing down the path of complete mariner alienation?
They’ve taken a lot of heat this year for the way the transition from the old, decentralized REC-based system to the new, centralized NMC-controlled system has been handled. It’s hard to say exactly how much of the criticism has been fair, but it is fair to say that the transition hasn’t been smooth and that the promised improvements haven’t manifested themselves in a way that is broadly tangible to mariners. A quick review of the gCaptain Training & Licensing forums shows some reporting quick, efficient service while others have suffered through abysmal service and lengthy delays while unknowledgeable and seemingly-incompetent evaluators regularly gave inconsistent answers to identical questions and applications. Consistency in all aspects of the licensing and certification of seafarers was one of the biggest reasons cited for consolidation in the first place. Insufficient medical review staff, combined with a much more comprehensive medical evaluation procedure, also contributed to a massive back-up in the system. Numerous mariners were left stranded on the beach with expired documents because of it and the slow, ponderous response to the building crisis hasn’t impressed. All of this was, apparently, unanticipated. It is expected that there will usually be some difficulties during any transition phase within an organization. But is it wrong to expect an agency such as the Coast Guard, tasked with all manner of emergency planning and response-type duties, to be better at anticipating potential problems before they snowball?
So we have to wonder what, if any, good will really come out of this meeting in the hills of ol’ West Virginia. Listening carefully to the opinions and legitimate concerns of mariners is not something that the Coast Guard has historically excelled at, especially lately. There were two other recent “watershed moments” in 2008, and they did not reflect well on them. First, they pointedly ignored the well-reasoned warnings of our association (MTVA) and independent, experienced towing industry mariners (including several Towing Vessel Designated Examiners) about their expansion of the 30-Day Wonder licensing loophole. Then they really showed all licensed mariners their ass (including some of their own who also hold licenses) by callously doing away with the symbolically-important traditional paper license while instituting the new Merchant Mariner Credential, despite overwhelming opposition from all quarters. As of today, four months later, we have yet to hear back from them on whether they might ever be bothered to offer some sort of “suitable for framing”-type document as a consolation prize, as they mentioned in their response to the growing shit storm of ill will they created. We’re still waiting to hear back from them, but we can only assume that nothing will ever come of this unless mariners keep the pressure on. It really is a terrible shame that it has to be this way.
I’ll end this by saying that the Coast Guard has a long, long way to go before they’ll ever convince many mariners that they’re the best choice for administering the Merchant Marine’s licensing & certification needs. Next week they’ll have a chance to show what they’re really made of.
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