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National Centers of Expertise

The Coast Guard’s effort to leverage its marine safety expertise is already paying dividends.

On May 22, 2010, when the Coast Guard opened the doors of the new Towing Vessel National Center of Expertise (TVNCOE) in Paducah, Ky., one of the final pieces was in place to build a reinvigorated marine safety program within the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) – a program with the capacity and consistency to keep pace with dynamic needs and rapid changes in the maritime industries.

For a number of reasons, the expertise of the Coast Guard’s marine safety inspectors and investigators began to deteriorate during the 1980s and 1990s, a problem compounded by two 21st century factors: First, after 9/11, the USCG shifted much of its focus to marine security, drawing personnel and budget resources away from the marine safety mission. Second, as the skill-sets of vessel inspectors continued to erode – to the point where people in the maritime industries began to write to their congressional representatives to complain – the degree of technical specialization within maritime industries began to increase at a remarkable rate.

Congressional inquiries about the state of the Coast Guard’s marine safety program led the commandant to hire an outside auditor, retired USCG Vice Adm. James C. Card, to conduct an independent analysis. Card’s report, submitted in November 2007, concluded that, despite leadership’s renewed focus on marine safety, the professionalism and service of the Coast Guard’s marine safety personnel needed improvement. Among the report’s recommendation for change were robust training programs, a renewed customer focus, and the encouragement of specialization within the marine safety professions.

The USCG responded by devising and implementing a five-year Marine Safety Performance Plan, or MSPP. Included in the plan, said Kyle McAvoy, senior marine inspector with the Coast Guard’s Office of Traveling Inspectors and National Centers of Expertise (NCOE), was a focus on producing better marine inspectors. “The Coast Guard wanted to get away from building the jack-of-all-trades but master of none,” said McAvoy. “We can’t build marine inspectors that can inspect every kind of craft, because the commercial marine transportation industry has evolved [into] too many different types of craft. So to ask a marine inspector to fully understand a mobile offshore drilling unit, for example, a tanker, a freight ship on the Great Lakes with steam propulsion plants, a charter fishing boat built out of wood that goes 50 miles offshore – it can get very technical in understanding all the issues involved with those. So from there was born the idea of the seven National Centers of Expertise, each with its focus on a different element of the shipping industry.”

The Centers

Most of the Centers of Expertise were established in the last year, and remain focused on staffing, furnishing their offices, and launching their training programs. Still, most are operational, and have already contributed significantly to the Coast Guard’s marine safety mission. As of August 2010, the centers are:

Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise (CSNCOE)

Miami, Fla. (954) 767-2140Supervisor: Cmdr. Buddy Reams

Assistant Supervisor: Lt. Cmdr. Mike Capelli

Scott Elphison, senior marine inspector for the Coast Guard Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise, addresses a group of students and fellow instructors during a hands-on cruise ship inspection Oct. 31, 2009. The hands-on lesson was part of the Advanced Foreign Passenger Vessel Examination course. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nick Ameen

In South Florida, where about 80 percent of U.S. cruise ships are homeported, the CSNCOE is within 10 miles of the corporate headquarters of the three largest cruise companies operating in the United States. The center performs Certificate of Compliance examinations on foreign cruise ships operating within Sector Miami, administers an inspection training course for Coast Guard students, helps to develop best practices for examinations, provides policy and doctrine advice to the commandant and other commands, and maintains a strong working relationship with cruise operators and with the Cruise Lines International Association.

“The goal for this center,” said the CSNCOE’s supervisor, Cmdr. Buddy Reams, “is for the people who leave our training program to go back out to the field and actually train the new members coming back through, so we have constant development and growth in our field competency.” As it matures, the CSNCOE will add exportable training modules and continue to sponsor training programs in which Coast Guard personnel spend several months with a cruise line learning the ins and outs of the industry.

“The most important part,” Reams said, “is that we have a regular dialogue, if not a daily dialogue, with the industry, and all the stakeholders that are involved with it, including all the Coast Guard field inspectors who go out on board and carry out these inspections.”

Suspension and Revocation National Center of Expertise

Martinsburg, W.Va. (304) 433-3701

Supervisor: Cmdr. Scott Budka

Assistant Supervisor: James “Pat” Fink

The USCG is charged by law to ensure the competency and professional conduct of more than 200,000 credentialed merchant mariners, and the suspension and revocation (S&R) process is one of the mechanisms used by the Coast Guard, as part of its overall Mariner Licensing Program, to protect the lives and safety of those at sea. S&R proceedings ensure that mariners who have either acted beyond the scope of their licensed authority, or have in some manner, been negligent to their responsibilities, can be administratively reprimanded in a hearing to ensure they continue to possess the necessary skills, experience, and character to safely operate in the Maritime Transportation System.

Co-located with the National Maritime Center, the S&R NCOE exists to improve the professionalism and proficiency of investigating officers who annually look into more than 600 complaints regarding mariners. “We coordinate with our training center down in Yorktown, Va., where there is already an established course for suspension and revocation,” said Cmdr. Scott Budka, the center’s supervisor. The center is currently staffed by six people, one of them an attorney, and its legal expertise is due to increase in the near future. “These are administrative hearings,” Budka said, “but they do have a lot of legal aspects to them … what we do is assist the local OCMI [Officer in Charge, Marine Inspection] with presenting the case at the hearing. Our attorney has gone out to Portland, Ore.; Beaumont, Texas; Galveston [Texas]; and Cleveland [Ohio].”

The S&R NCOE also provides training and advice to Coast Guard sectors, and investigators from other units, about the S&R process and hearing procedures.

Towing Vessel National Center of Expertise (TVNCOE)

Paducah, Ky. (270) 444-7715

Supervisor: Cmdr. Greg Case

Assistant Supervisor: Lt. Julie Bethke

The towing vessel Dixie Vengeance and the two barges it was pushing collided with the 807-foot tank ship Eagle Otome in the Sabine-Neches Waterway in Port Arthur, Texas, Jan. 23, 2010. As a result of the collision, the Eagle Otome sustained damage in the vicinity of the number one starboard tank, which was reported to be loaded with crude oil, and spilled an estimated 450,000 gallons of oil. The Investigations National Center of Expertise (INCOE) assisted Marine Safety Unit Port Arthur with the investigation of this marine casualty. In addition to providing investigative assistance when requested, the INCOE is developing advanced training opportunities for Coast Guard investigators. USCG photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Renee C. Aiello

In Paducah – a hub of the nation’s inland river system and towboat capital of the United States, the TVNCOE is preparing to work with a newly regulated industry, said Cmdr. Greg Case: “Towing vessels are about to go through a regulatory process that will make them inspected,” he said. “We came on the scene at a time when we can help them transition from uninspected to inspected vessels. That’s kind of a big challenge, because we’re taking a whole industry that’s not used to us, a whole industry that we’re not used to, and we’re trying to kind of socialize both sides and at the same time, stand up training programs and standards of qualification.” To do so, the TVNCOE is staffed with people from both the towing industry and the Coast Guard.

The center began delivering its first inspection courses in the summer of 2010. “We have four Uninspected Towing Vessel Examiner courses going from the end of July through September,” said Case, “and we’ll get 80 or so examiners through the school in that time.”

Investigations National Center of Expertise (INCOE)

New Orleans, La. (504) 565-5069

Supervisor: Cmdr. Josh McTaggart

Assistant Supervisor: Lt. Cmdr. Willie Pittman

The INCOE is co-located with the Coast Guard’s Sector New Orleans, La., and is envisioned to capture the best practices of marine casualty investigations, both inside and beyond the maritime industry, and incorporate them into advanced training opportunities for investigations personnel throughout the Coast Guard. It will also assist in the standardization of investigations across USCG field units.

While the INCOE is still developing its external training programs, it has had a busy year, according to assistant supervisor Pittman. In January, it assisted with the investigation of the second largest oil spill in Texas history when the tanker Eagle Otome collided with a barge in the Sabine-Neches Waterway in Port Arthur. In the spring and summer of 2010, it assigned two employees to work directly on the investigation of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the Louisiana coast.

“I can’t even list all the different units that call us on a day-to-day basis just for insight on a Coast Guard policy with regards to investigation and how it’s being implemented and interpreted,” said Lt. Cmdr. Willie Pittman. “We also work with Coast Guard Headquarters, CG-545 [Office of Investigations and Analysis] and we review policy and policy letters prior to their being implemented or signed into Coast Guard policy.”

Vintage Vessel National Center of Expertise (VVNCOE)

Duluth, Minn. (218) 720-5286, ext. 137

Supervisor: Lt. Kevin Broyles

The Great Lakes Fleet contains some of the largest remaining deep-draft cargo vessels in the United States, the “1,000-footers,” many of which are more than 50 years old and operate with steam propulsion systems. While much of the VVNCOE’s work will deal with these freshwater vessels, it will also encompass older vessels in all environments: The steamers in the U.S. Maritime Administration’s National Defense Reserve Fleet, vintage warships, older sailing vessels, and any vessels built with technologies that are no longer in standard current production practice.

The VVNCOE was recently staffed with a permanent active-duty supervisor. Its experts will develop and maintain vintage vessel inspection competencies and curricula, perform vintage vessel inspections, conduct and supervise training, and establish training opportunities within the merchant marine in the steam-powered and legacy hull fleets.

Liquefied Gas Carrier National Center of Expertise (LGCNCOE)

Port Arthur, Texas (409) 284-2296

Supervisor: Cmdr. Randal Ogrydziak

Assistant Supervisor: Lt. Cmdr. Michael Odom

The demand for liquefied hazardous gases – liquefied natural gas (LNG) and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) – is on the rise both in the United States and worldwide. Given the potential danger associated with liquefied gas, as well as the sophistication of the cryogenic and compressed-gas technologies currently at work in the industry, the challenges of the LGCNCOE are clear: It must help ensure the safety of the vessels that carry liquefied gases along with the port facilities that store and transfer them.

Cmdr. Randal Ogrydziak, the LGCNCOE’s supervisor, said the center recently assumed responsibility for the Coast Guard’s LNG Shiprider program, in which Coast Guard personnel from all over the country stay aboard throughout a carrier’s entire voyage. The LGCNCOE has also designed a basic 40-hour LGC course to introduce marine inspectors to liquefied gas carriers – offering instruction both in the technical aspects of the systems they will encounter, and in the regulatory background unique to liquefied gas storage and transport.

Ogrydziak envisions the LGCNCOE as a technical and regulatory resource for the USCG and industry personnel alike. “We’ve been working with all our Coast Guard gas carrier port offices, making them know that we’re available, and we get a lot of phone calls on the technical side. We also have a lot of shipping companies that move LPG and LNG that call us. If we don’t have the answer at hand, we can find that answer and get it to you.”

Outer Continental Shelf National Center of Expertise (OCSNCOE)

Morgan City, La. (985) 380-5303

Supervisor: Lt. Cmdr. Brian Khey

Assistant Supervisor: Lt. Darin Qualkenbush

The mobile offshore drilling unit Q4000 holds position directly over the damaged Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer, May 18, 2010, as the drillship Discoverer Enterprise burns gas that is being brought to the surface through a tube that has been placed into the ruptured drill pipe. The Outer Continental Shelf National Center of Expertise (OCSNCOE) personnel help resolve issues with how to inspect these various craft through policy input and conducting the inspections themselves, as well as training other marine inspectors. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley

In the Gulf of Mexico, whose oil and gas reserves supply 30 percent of the nation’s energy needs – and where oil production is projected to increase over the next decade to 2.1 million barrels of oil per day – operators are rapidly evolving extraction, storage, and offloading technologies beneath the region’s outer continental shelf (OCS).

Lt. Cmdr. Brian Khey, the OCSNCOE’s supervisor, said the center’s initial priorities have been to address the many gaps that exist in the Coast Guard’s regulatory knowledge and skills with regard to the offshore oil and gas industry due to the rapid pace of change within the industry, and to give policy guidance and direction to inspectors while beginning development of a long-term training program.

Progress on those priorities, however, was interrupted by the Deepwater Horizon crisis, in response to which the OCSNCOE played several direct roles. Khey himself served at the Houston, Texas, incident command post, and other personnel from the center were involved in the investigation and the effort to stop the flow of oil from the well. The bulk of the center’s involvement throughout the Deepwater Horizon spill, said Khey, was simply educating Coast Guard personnel about what was going on with truly complex offshore systems. Due to the rapid technology growth within the offshore energy industry, Coast Guard headquarters staff needed specific briefings to re-gain the insight and training on how the offshore industry works, including drilling and production processes and how those tasks are preformed. Therefore, Khey said they gave a lot of drilling 101, high-level briefs at the headquarters level, at the district level, and at the area level.

Once the region passes out of crisis mode and the Coast Guard returns to something resembling a normal mode of operations in the Gulf, OCSNCOE will return to normal. Khey said, it will return its focus to the development of training to Coast Guard sectors that perform OCS unit inspections; on-the-job training and/or expert assistance for OCS inspectors from other USCG units; and policy advice to headquarters.

The Future

The person in charge of implementing the National Centers of Expertise – Capt. Gordon Loebl, chief of the Office of Traveling Inspectors and National Centers of Expertise – is gratified to know that the NCOEs, most of them less than a year old, have already had such an impact on the work of the Coast Guard.

“We’ve spent a year building our infrastructure and getting the right people in the right jobs,” said Loebl, “and I think we did very well. If you look at the talent that we brought in, our supervisors were able to hire some absolute ‘ringers’ from the industry. We’ve got close to 200 years of industry experience brought into those civilian positions, and there are still some openings left.”

The work of hired industry experts, Loebl said, will be crucial as each center becomes increasingly operational and solidifies the Coast Guard’s relationship within specific sectors. “The centers will become even more of a two-way street,” he said, “a very fertile ground for exchange of ideas and perspectives, and that’s obviously what we’re all about. We need to increase our visibility with the industry – and with the rest of the Coast Guard, for that matter.”

This article first appeared in Coast Guard Outlook: 2011 Edition.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...