The officer corps of the U.S. Coast Guard, like that of the Navy, is organized around several operational communities. Response Ashore comprises officers who staff the service’s 35 sectors and carry out the responsibilities of the captain of the port, search-and-rescue mission coordinator, federal on-scene coordinator, and federal maritime-security coordinator. They execute search and rescue, pollution response, maritime security, law enforcement, and all-hazards response, as well as overseeing the Coast Guard’s small-boat stations and patrol boats.
Training regimens for the other operational communities are well developed and provide ample structure for the newly minted ensign, but Response lacks a strong curriculum to prepare junior officers. Although the cutter fleet has had decades to refine best practices for junior-officer development, the first sector command, Miami, was established only in 2004. As a result, there is wide disparity in the type and quantity of training that Response officers receive. Too often, new officers blaze through the typical three-year Response billet. Then, when they leave their units, they may be well-versed in collateral duties and managing a division, but they have little to show in terms of fundamental qualifications and subject-matter expertise.
If the Coast Guard is to produce a cadre of capable Response officers for the future, it is imperative that these billets offer a structured training program similar to those of the other operational communities. Such a program should include:
• Standardized expectations: Commands should require Response officers to earn key qualifications in the Response missions during their first tour, including as maritime law-enforcement boarding officer, pollution responder, operations unit controller (i.e., search-and-rescue controller), and small-boat crew member. The 2013 Response Officer Career Guide provides a list of qualifications that these officers should earn at some point during their careers, but it does not establish a timeline, nor does it stipulate priorities for first-tour Response officers. And while C-Schools exist for each Response mission, such as Boarding Officer School and Search and Rescue School, junior officers may or may not attend each course during their first tour.
• Station experience: The centrality of small-boat stations to the Response mission set, particularly search and rescue, makes it crucial that junior officers have a solid understanding of their role, organization, and capabilities. Commands should require that first-tour junior Response officers spend several weeks on temporary assigned duty to one of these stations in their sectors. During that period, they should be responsible for qualifying as standard Coast Guard small-boat crew members. More important, living and working closely with enlisted personnel will give them deckplate-level experience while developing perspective that will inform their decision-making as watchstanders in the Sector Command Center.
• Cross-training: Junior Response officers should divide their three-year sector tour in half, spending half of their time in each of the two divisions that form the Response department at a sector: Incident Management and Enforcement. By doing this, Response officers will gain proficiency in each mission. Current policy allows for a five-month temporary transfer between divisions, and requires that a permanent transition be approved by the Coast Guard Office of Personnel Management.
• Temporary assignments: Mission demands vary among captain of the port zones. While sectors along the Gulf Coast face frequent pollution cases involving oil and hazardous-material spills, security and law-enforcement operations are more prevalent in ports like New York and Boston. Because Response officers may have ample opportunity to train in one mission area but not another, commands should encourage officers using temporary-assigned-duty periods to work with other commands with more well developed operations in a particular mission area than are available at the home unit. Officers should also capitalize on cost-effective options such as using Unaccompanied Personnel Housing, as available, or working with units located within reasonable commuting distance.
The development of a standardized training program that levels expectations and opportunities across Coast Guard sectors would do much to enhance first-tour Response officer assignments. It is also necessary to ensure that the service produces officers who are technically competent and capable of assuming future positions of responsibility safeguarding our nation’s ports and waterways.