Four years ago, when Capt. Dave Stalfort was tapped to head the U.S. Coast Guard’s (USCG) National Maritime Center (NMC) – the new centralized headquarters for the Service’s Mariner Licensing and Documentation (MLD) program – he did what few Coast Guard officers, probably, would have done: He said yes.
As recently as 2005, the MLD program was – everyone in the Coast Guard will tell you so – an institutional backwater, a dysfunctional bureaucracy overwhelmed by paperwork. It had become the program where Coast Guard careers went to die a quiet death – where, despite your best intentions, you could count on years of frustration and disappointment.
USCG has, for more than a century, been the licensing and certification agency for the nation’s mariners, something like a national Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) for vessel operators and industry workers. Unfortunately, by the end of the 20th century, the mariner licensing program, conducted through 17 Regional Examination Centers, or RECs, had a reputation similar to that of most DMVs – long waits (it took literally months to get a credential issued), terrible customer service, and a widely varying set of evaluation standards.
“Because there were 17 different locations,” said Stalfort, “there were actually 17 different ways of doing business, 17 different ways of evaluating mariners’ applications. You had a tremendous amount of inconsistency across the nation in how licenses were issued and evaluated. So mariners started going shopping for the best exam center, the one that would give them the most favorable read on their credential application. And that’s not a good way to run a licensing structure to ensure the safety of the marine transportation system.”
Stalfort, who already had more than 20 years of his Coast Guard career invested in marine safety, wanted to see this system changed before he left the Service. When then-Commandant Adm. Thad W. Allen announced his intention to reform the Mariner Licensing and Documentation program in 2005, and Congress provided a modest advance for the consolidation of MLD functions, Stalfort jumped at the chance to oversee the implementation of a new streamlined program that would run like a business – at low cost and high customer satisfaction. The No. 1 rule for the new program would be: Show respect to the mariner.
Mariners who apply for a Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC), the qualification and competency document that certifies them for service aboard a specific class of vessels, have to meet the requirements in the federal regulations: background that does not present a safety risk (i.e., no violent criminal history or crimes related to substance abuse); a passing grade on professional examinations that establish training and competency for sea service requirements; and a certification that they are medically fit for duty, without any serious occupational risks. Those three evaluations were, in the past, conducted at the RECs, and because of added regulations and a spike in the number of mariners applying for credentials, the process had become a labyrinthine undertaking by 2005. As the workload grew and the RECs remained understaffed, some centers shortened their operating hours, or simply stopped answering the phones, in order to focus on the growing backlog of applications.
To be able to attack the problems inherent in the MLD program, Stalfort and his staff determined that the first order of business must be to centralize USCG licensing expertise and its evaluation functions into a single headquarters, the National Maritime Center. This process began immediately, and was finalized in January 2008 when, in Martinsburg, W.Va., the National Maritime Center officially opened the doors of a new three-story, 60,000-square-foot facility to house the MLD program and the Merchant Mariner Training Course Approval and Oversight Program.
The function of the RECs has changed, said Stalfort, which explains why they now are called Regional Examination Centers. The REC is now more of a “storefront” or advocate for the mariner. Visiting an REC is still the first step in the revised application process: Mariners take licensing examinations and file their applications at the centers, which forward the applications to the NMC, where trained and specialized teams evaluate each application to make sure a mariner meets the requirements.
These trained experts now include physicians – who typically had not been involved in the medical review process. “Before, we were looking at the guidelines and having people without medical training certify that mariners were medically fit,” said Stalfort. “And that was not a good system. So … we designed and incorporated an occupational medicine evaluation division here at the National Maritime Center.”
There are 35 doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and medical staff who are trained in occupational medicine, and they evaluate the mariner’s fitness for duty. They look at any occupational risk that may present a problem, such as diabetes, heart disease, sleep apnea, etc.
While the NMC was being built, Stalfort and his staff worked to standardize the licensing process across the Coast Guard, first looking at reasons why applications were getting bottlenecked and implementing performance measures.
Since these standardization efforts began in 2006, the Coast Guard has made tremendous progress. As of August 2010, instead of taking months, a credential was issued in an average of fewer than 17 days. In the simplest case, a credential was issued in as few as five or six days. The mountainous backlog of unanswered applications was finally cleared away in 2009.
Customer service has been improved by a call center that now operates 12 hours a day and by added Web-based solutions that made a huge difference in availability and connectivity. The Web-based solutions were as simple as: an e-mail link, online application tracking, online fee payment, and automatic e-mail updates on MLD news and information.
How Have Mariners Responded So Far?
According to Stalfort, a baseline customer survey, issued in January 2009, revealed about 30 percent of respondents to be “satisfied” with their experience in applying for and receiving licensing documentation. In the most recent measurement, issued in early 2010, close to 90 percent said they were satisfied – an impressive rate of improvement for the new program’s first five years.
The Future National Maritime Center: from Standardization to Modernization
Such an ambitious overhaul, carried out with such swiftness, has encountered some bumps in the road, and the NMC, along with the praise it has earned from within the industry, is still fielding advice and, yes, complaints.
One of the MLD program’s staunchest critics over the past decade has been the National Mariners Association (NMA), a limited tonnage merchant mariner advocacy and watchdog group that advocates for the safety, health, and well-being of mariners. “Years ago, everything was done by paper, so a lot of things were lost in the mail, so to speak,” said Capt. Joseph Dady, the NMA’s president. “But [now], they’ve really streamlined it. The process itself, I think, is working just about as well as you can expect as far as getting a document issued in a timely manner.”
The process is still prone to becoming bogged down, Dady said, when there are medical issues complicating an application. “I think there are 206 conditions that could flag a review, and when that occurs, that’s when the delays occur.”
Ike Eisentrout, the NMC’s deputy director, acknowledges that the medical review process can be lengthy – and says that mariners will be more likely to avoid delays if they are proactive. “If a mariner has medical issues, yes, it can take several months for medical tests to clear,” he said. “That’s why we encourage mariners to apply early if they think they may have medical conditions that will affect their applications. Under the Merchant Mariner Credential rule, mariners can apply for their renewal at any time.”
Stalfort acknowledged that the new MLD program is a work in progress, and there is still much work to be done by his successor, Capt. Anthony S. Lloyd, who assumed command of the NMC after Stalfort retired in July 2010. The program is on track, however, to become the efficient, businesslike, and largely digital program he envisioned when taking command in 2006.
The most important future improvement to the NMC will be the movement to an entirely electronic application system, something Stalfort described as “TurboTax® for mariners.” The system will capture course completion data from approved schools, medical information from physicians, sea service data from employers, and personal information from mariners themselves. The system would be made accessible wherever Internet access is available – even from the bridge of a ship. “Mariners still fill out applications by hand,” Stalfort said. “They mail them or they submit them in person and then we process the paper through the system. Many of the applications come in incomplete, and that contributes to delays that we really can’t control because the mariner has to submit additional information.”
As a first step in the modernization process, an electronic application system will enable other efficiencies – namely, data-sharing with third parties such as employers. “Right now, the mariner gets a sea service form or a letter from their employer and includes it in the application,” said Stalfort. “Well, we’re setting up data-sharing so that the employer can submit that directly to our data center. Likewise, training organizations can … submit data that John Smith completed this course on this date. And we’d have certification from that third party that the mariner met that requirement.”
A central database will also facilitate the program’s “storefronts” migration outward from the 17 RECs with a “trusted agent” program that will further streamline the process by increasing the number of locations where mariners can submit applications.
Stalfort envisions a day when the credential itself will be electronic – but he cautions: It’s probably still a few years from happening. “With advances in technology, we would even envision, in the future, a credential becoming a ‘smart card’ where the information about the mariner could be accessed by the mariner or the employers or port control officials around the country through the use of a smart credential.” Changes to the mariner’s record would become immediately registered on the card the next time it is scanned by the system, rather than transmitted by paper.
Much of the Coast Guard’s maritime safety regulations are coordinated with the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations agency responsible for improving maritime safety worldwide. The IMO, Stalfort said, still has questions about the data security of a smart credential, and is not yet ready to embrace it. Likewise, efforts to merge the new all-in-one MMC, rolled out in early 2009, and the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC), issued by the Transportation Security Agency, are not yet gaining much momentum; the TWIC, a domestic certification required under the Maritime Transportation Security Act, is issued to workers who require unescorted access to secure vessels, ports, and offshore facilities.
“There’s been talk about trying to merge the TWIC and the MMC,” Stalfort said, “and from the mariners’ perspective, there’s a desire to do that. But the TWIC is not an international document, and there are complications to be resolved.” For now, the NMC will focus on putting its electronic application system together and enabling its data-sharing and other automated features.
The total workforce of the NMC is now about 350 – most of them civilians, and most of those civilians are deployed to the RECs. This dedicated workforce maintains records on more than 2 million mariners from around the world, and handles active records on about 800,000 employed mariners from 192 different countries – about 216,000 mariners from the United States.
After Stalfort retired, he left behind a program that continues to make remarkable improvements. In just five years, he and his staff had transformed the MLD program into something about which everyone involved – USCG personnel and mariners alike – have come to feel hopeful.
“They’ve made tremendous improvements,” said Dady. “There are still some issues, but it’s coming along and seems to be getting better as the days go by.”
This article first appeared in Coast Guard Outlook: 2011 Edition.