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Marine Safety Center

I reported to the Marine Safety Center on May 28, 1993.  At the time, the Marine Safety Center was located on the sixth floor of the DOT Building (the Department of Homeland Security wasn't around yet) in Washington, DC.  People somehow had this image of this high tech operation but in fact we were at that time still a paper driven government office.  The best thing about our location was that it was a very short walk from the Virginia Railway Express station to the office.

My initial assignment was as a “staff engineer” in the Engineering Division.  Basically, I reviewed very technical vessel plans for compliance with all federal regulations, I mean, that was my job; no patrols, no after hours work, no Auxiliary meetings – I reviewed technical plans - period.  I could have churned out a lot more plan reviews, but there was no particular reason.  In fact, working at a faster pace was somewhat discouraged for some reason.  The basic belief - and I believe it was quite true - was that if we worked harder, we would just get more work – at least that was the philosophy at the time.

The job was easy - and I mean easy with a capital E.  For the first time in my Coast Guard career (other than the two years I had just spent at graduate school), I was not subject to any form of recall whatsoever.  From the time I reported into Group Detroit until the day I left Marine Safety Office Louisville (a mere seven and a half years), the only time I wasn't subject to recall was when I was travelling between assignments.  I worked from 6:30 to 4:00 and had every other Friday off.  This scheme was known as “The Compressed Work Schedule.”  The days were long.  I had to get up at 4:30 am and be out the door at 5:10 to catch a 5:25 Virginia Railway Express train in Manassas.  In the afternoon, I caught the train at 4:25 and got to Manassas at 5:25.  By the time I got out of the parking lot and drove the two miles to our house, it was 5:40.  Commuting turned my day into basically a 12 hour day.  Still, considering that I had every other Friday off and got off at 1530 the other Friday, it wasn't too bad of a deal.

My first boss was a decent enough guy.  He was the Machinery Branch Chief.  The boss was on his way out of the Coast Guard because he was not selected for Commander.  Our Division Chief, a Commander was another guy who would rather have been anywhere but sitting at the Marine Safety Center.  They were really easy guys to work for.  All you had to do was keep the plans flowing and you were golden.

Of course, we all had plenty of time to take our two hour DOT Fitness Center Workouts at least four days per week.  Like I said, we could have emptied the queue very quickly, but why bother when all that would do is land you more assignments?  Besides, everyone was happy with us.  So much for "Devotion to Duty".

My office mates were a Lieutenant and a long servicing civilian.  Both of them were what was known as “gurus”; The Lieutenant was exceptionally well versed in 46 CFR Subchapter J (Electrical Requirements) and the civilian in steam power piping.  My point here is not to take anything away from either of these guys; they were in fact both extremely knowledgeable within their respective areas of expertise.  What I still wonder to this day is how the Coast Guard allows themselves to get into a position where all the “corporate knowledge” resides in a single individual.  Eventually, people are going to retire or plain old get tired of what they are doing and want to move on.  Fortunately for the Coast Guard, neither of these guys took too great of advantage of their situation, but it was clear that they essentially held the unit command hostage as far as the review of these systems.

One of my best funny memories of the place involved an encounter with then Secretary of Transportation Federico Peňa very shortly after my arrival.  It was very hot in the summer of 1993 in Washington, DC (like it isn't hot there ever during the summer).  At the time, I didn't have contact lenses yet and naturally didn't see too well without my glasses.  I had just come in from a run and was getting ready to hit the shower when a guy in the locker room asked me how it was outside.  With little thought I responded that “it was hotter than a bitch in heat.”  The guy took off the t-shirt he had on and instead put on a tank top.  I didn't think too much about it until after he left, another guy (who I didn't know) asked me if I knew who I was talking to.  Of course I told him no.  He said “that was the Secretary.”  My response was “whose secretary?” Of course, it was Mr. Peňa.  I know that a lot of people didn't like Mr. Peňa mostly for political reasons, but the guy was actually just that; a guy.  He was a frequent visitor to the fitness center and I would from time to time pass him running alone in SW Washington DC.  We’d always smile and acknowledge him, which I think he appreciated and then just leave him alone.  The guy appeared to be a lonely guy from time to time.  Politics aside, I had no beef with the guy and I think (correction - I knew) he genuinely enjoyed having the Coast Guard around the DOT Building.  It was the same thing after Mr. Peňa left and Rodney Slater took over.  The fitness center was the site of another interesting exchange.  There were two guys actually about to come to blows over who was next on one of the stationary bicycles.  If you know Mr. Slater, you know that he’s a pretty big guy and he walked over and asked the guys “Can’t we all just get along?”  Mr. Slater was a pretty big fan of the Coast Guard also.  You see these guys on television and they look so regal, but in real life they are just guys trying to get by.

Early on, I got to travel to San Diego to attend NFPA-13 Sprinkler System School.  It was a great school and I learned a ton about how sprinkler systems work and how they were designed.  I could see why people liked San Diego too.  After taking this course, I have never looked at a sprinkler system in the same way!  I didn't do a lot of travelling (I didn't consider this a bad thing since I had a fairly new wife and an infant son at home).  The only other school I attended was Crude Oil Washing/Inert Gas System School at the Maine Maritime Academy.  That was a pretty good school also.

Doing technical review of complex drawings and plans was somewhat interesting and even at bit challenging at first.   Sadly, it started to get real old after about a year.  Don’t get me wrong here; it was important work that needed to get done correctly.  Reviewed plans were used by field inspectors who might (or most likely might not) notice if there were errors in the plan review, but you need to remember that these guys were generally not technical experts and were in fact relying on the Marine Safety Center.  It was important for us to get it right. 

We were a production facility too.  Every day the mail room delivered a huge stack of plans for review.  If we didn't keep up, the dreaded “backlog” started to grow.  As long as we kept that backlog to about 30 days, everyone was happy.  To this day I get a kick out of how people envision the review process at the Marine Safety Center.  When I was at Marine Safety Office Louisville, we had a small ship building facility (I can’t really call it a shipyard) that was going to build a small passenger vessel.  For small vessel passenger plan review, the local Officer in Charge of Marine Inspection can elect to do plan review locally or to ship it off to the Marine Safety Center.  In this instance, the unit elected to do it locally in Louisville.  I remember the conference room being set up almost like a command post.  I distinctly remember a bilge system drawing being reviewed by two inspectors as well as the Executive Officer and Commanding Officer.  They probably put a combined four or five man hours into that one drawing.  At the Marine Safety Center, I would give this type of plan about 15 minutes - and that was being extremely thorough!  Of course, after you've reviewed a couple dozen (or more) of these plans, you know what to look for.  Like I said earlier, if you didn't keep them moving, they started stacking up in the corner.

I was promoted to Lieutenant Commander shortly after my arrival.  During the 1995 summer transfer season, there was an opening in the Cargo Division.  Since my background was perfect for the job, I moved from the Engineering Division to the Cargo Division into the Foreign Tank Vessel Branch.  In my branch within the Cargo Division we had two primary responsibilities, developing cargo lists for tank ships and reviewing vapor control systems.  Again, the work was initially challenging, but quickly became quite routine (translation: boring).  Again, these were very critical items.  If you were to allow the wrong cargoes on a tank ship and they somehow interacted, the results could be catastrophic.  It was the same thing with a Vapor Control System.  An improperly designed system could be the cause of a tank vessel rupture or even cause an explosion.  I’m proud to say that with hundreds of these systems reviewed (and with my signature of the approval paperwork), none have caused any explosions or other major problems (at least that I know of).

In the fall of 1995, a branch chief job came open in the Cargo Division when the incumbent took an early retirement.  Since I was there, I slid into the job.  It was a pretty small branch with only two other guys.  I should probably add that I was the one primarily responsible for the departure of the former branch chief in October 1995.  The guy was an insufferable jerk who he knew every damn thing about tank ships, but unlike my previous office mates, he wasn't as smart as he thought he was.  The fact that he was an ass hole just made it worse.  You could send in a letter for signature identical to one that you sent in a week ago and he would start editing it.  When you pointed out that he had just signed an exact copy a week previously, you’d get a smart ass “well, I changed my mind.”  By this time I was an officer with 12 years experience and didn't take kindly to being treated like some ensign by some lazy civilian (who was also a pathetic single man – and for good reason I should add) that spent most of his time reviewing “Investor’s Daily” looking for hot stock tips.  He also played favorites to certain submitter’s putting their submissions ahead of others.  What made it worse was when he got behind; he would blame the staff. Not exactly what you would call your great leader. After a couple months I had enough of this guy’s shenanigans.  I went to the Executive Officer and dropped the dime on him. He had been threatening to retire and I wanted him gone.  After talking to the Executive Officer, he was retired in a couple weeks.  That didn't sit too well with my fellow Branch Chief who was buddies with this guy.

My fellow Branch Chief in the Cargo Division was a fairly lazy operator too.  He would come into the office as late as 9:30 claiming that he would be staying late.  I remember coming back from a meeting at Headquarter a little late one day and he was gone at 4:10.  It turned out that was pretty much routine for him.  He was always way behind on his work since he was a first class slacker.  Since he was senior to me, when our Division Chief pulled a fast one and retired on about a week’s notice, he was named as “Acting Division Chief.”  The key word here was "acting" and he wasn't exactly Academy Award winning material.  Well, if you think he was bad as a Branch Chief, he was horrible as the Division Chief.  He got even further behind as well as trying some other stunts.  When it all started to go bad, I learned that he was going to try to put as much of the blame on as possible on me and the rest of the Division.  For the first time in my career, and as much as I couldn't believe it, I was faced with what was essentially a “kill or be killed (at least professionally) situation.  Unfortunately for this guy, I had befriended myself with the Executive Officer and pulled the trigger on him before he could make his move.  It really bothered me that it came to this.  I had heard of similar situations and always hoped I would never be in that kind of situation.  Looking back, I knocked off two guys in about a two month period.  To this day, I kind of wonder how they lasted as long as they did.  I guess they just screwed with the wrong guy.  I don’t care so much if you don’t do your job; just don’t blame me when things go bad.  Had these guys left me out of it and just let me do my work, they might still be around, who knows?  Just as a follow up, the guy ending up with a forced retirement at 20 years as a Lieutenant Commander after spending a final tour at a field unit; without the poor performance reports from the Marine Safety Center, he certainly would have made Commander.  Since the difference in retirement pay is about 600 dollars a month, his dust up with me probably will end up costing him around a quarter million dollars total.  As far as the civilian, he tried his luck as a consultant, but with no “friends” at the Marine Safety Center, he wasn't worth too much and never did actually get any work in the area.  Of course, as a pathetic single man who dressed poorly and lived like a bum, he probably is doing just fine on his federal retirement pay.  As an aside, I never understood civilians who dress shabbily. The notion that appearance doesn't count is complete bull.  Maybe if you're Albert Einstein you could get away with looking like a bum, but for someone who claims to be a professional there is a certain expectation that you will look and act like one.

One of our favorite past times during the fall was the office football pool.  The pool started out as about a dozen guys quickly ballooned into a much larger enterprise with upwards of 50 participants on a regular basis.  I knew we were heading for problems and they finally came when we got a new Commanding Officer.  The first CO was another guy on the way out who really didn't care about much except keeping the backlog to where no one complained.  He wasn't an “insider” and the rumor was they were trying to get rid of him.  Well, when his tour was up and he was assigned to a Liaison Officer Job in Panama that was the end of his Coast Guard time.  It’s a well known “stealth” policy that if you want to force a guy out, you give him an assignment that you know he’ll never takes and that forces him or her “Retire in Lieu of Orders”.  I never really got to know the guy very well.  From my brief interactions with the guy, he impressed me as a decent enough cat.  He stayed in his office most of the time and kept to himself.

When Captain Walsh retired, we held the Change of Command/Retirement Ceremony in a conference room in the DOT Building.  Originally we wanted to hold it out on the plaza, but the idea was shot down.  I’m not sure what the “official” reason was, but unless you were an idiot it was pretty clear that our unit’s complete lack of diversity was the reason.  At the time there were 33 officers at the Marine Safety Center.  32 were while males and we had one while female.  The Commandant had been assuring the Secretary that diversity was a high priority within the Coast Guard.  Well, there was no way we could parade a unit consisting of 97% white guy outside his window.  Although I thought the whole thing was pure bullshit, I guess it wasn't too bad since the conference room was air conditioned and we would have sweated like crazy outside.  In fact, I recall freezing my butt off standing next to an air conditioner.  Ah, first world problems!

The new guy on the other hand, was one of these guys who could look at a finely running machine and want to tear it down and try to “fix” it.  He was fixated on “Customer Service” although I don’t think he knew the difference between Customer Service and a Service Station.  

When he first took over, he wanted all the branch chiefs to give him briefing.  When I went in, I mentioned “MARPOL Annex II” and he asked me to speak English.  I knew right there that although I didn't particularly like the guy, he wouldn't be giving me any trouble as far as micro managing my work since he didn't really have a clue what I did and had absolutely no interest in learning either.  He never did and although he was a jerk to a lot of people, I was OK with him.  We did have one slight disagreement that looking back was kind of amusing.  For whatever reason, he wanted to have the unit remain open until 7 pm “to serve our west coast customers.”  It was a bad idea in more ways than anyone could imagine.  First, we were a very compartmentalized operation.  If you were to call looking for a status of a submission, anyone could tell you who it was assigned to.  What they couldn't tell you was what the status was; only the engineer assigned to the project knew that.  Mike didn't want to shift office hours, just have one staff member there to take calls.  I explained that there was a reason why people who worked with the government maintained offices in the DC area.  While I don’t think the guy ever “got it”, we never did make the change.  Of course, it was most likely because he came up with his next crack pot idea that didn't affect me. 

There was one thing about the guy that to this day I find amusing.  At the time, the Coast Guard was big into the dreaded "Total Quality Management".  Like most mid grade officers and senior enlisted at the time I had other names for it.  What the guy would do when he came up with one of his crack pot ideas was "charter" a "natural working group" to make recommendations.  If the Natural Working Group didn't come to the "correct" conclusion, he would disband the group or rewrite the charter and keep doing this until he got the answer he wanted.  If he got the answer he wanted, he would implement the idea.  If it didn't work out, he would accept no responsibility and blame it on the Natural Working Group saying "I followed the principles of TQM".  Of course if it did work out he would take all the credit.  What a guy, right?

This is a short chapter because there really wasn't ever any real excitement at work.  Even the people were in general boring (me included).  We did have a couple guys who were cheating on their wives who thought no one knew what they were up to.  No names here guys, but trust me, we all knew.  Probably the only reason no one ever blew you in was that we really didn't care!  Besides, most of us subscribed to the "mind your own business" rule.

When it came time to leave, I really wasn't sure what the assignment officer had in mind for me.  The first time we spoke, she told me to put down a bunch of Executive Officer jobs at smaller Marine Safety Offices because that’s where I needed to be.  I didn't figure I had any shot, but did it anyway.  Imagine my surprise when I received the call that I was going to Marine Safety Office Pittsburgh as the Executive Officer.  It was back to the field and as a member of a command cadre.  I wasn't all that thrilled about Pittsburgh, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do.  The kids were young so the assignment would have little impact on them.  I was fairly certain that I’d be back in DC in two or three years so we didn't sell our house and instead rented it.  Short term the rental was a disaster, but longer term it really paid off.

The Marine Safety Center had been a nice place, but after six years either at school or in an office, I was itching to get back to any field unit.  I left the Marine Safety Center in the summer of 1997 and headed off to Pittsburgh for the next chapter.

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