National Maritime Center Struggles With Shutdown Effects

Months after reopening after a temporary partial federal shutdown, the National Maritime Center (NMC) in Martinsburg, W.Va., which issues all maritime credentials, is still struggling with the backlog of applications and submissions that built up during that time, according to deputy director Anne Seither.

Seither was speaking to the Mid-America Regional Exam Center workgroup (MAREC) meeting on May 20, held in conjunction with the Inland Marine Expo in St. Louis. She was assisted in her presentation by Jim Stewart, head of the NMC’s Program Support Division.

The NMC was shut down from December 22, 2018, until January 25 during a budget dispute between Congress and the administration of Donald Trump. Although only some federal agencies were involved—others having been funded by a continuing resolution—it was the longest U.S. government shutdown in history. During the shutdown, the NMC had only a skeleton staff of nine military and nine civilian personnel. There was no one to pick up the mail, so dozens or hundreds of applications were returned to mariners with no record that they arrived.

Seither showed a “pig in a python” graphic to illustrate the problems at the NMC remaining from the bulge in unprocessed applications during the shutdown. Since the shutdown, all of the center’s performance metrics have worsened. Average net processing time per application, for example, which had dropped to 11 days before the shutdown, has climbed back up to 27.6 days. The NMC’s backlog of applications, which was 1,800 before the shutdown, stands at 6,882 today, she said.

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Average processing time for medical certificates alone has climbed to 20.7 days, the highest ever.  Before the shutdown, the backlog of medical certificates was 909; it stands at 3,200 now, Seither said.

The problems are compounded because of the center’s outdated IT system, which dates back to the 1990s.

For instance, the average application or form submission has a 50 percent “error rate,” meaning that further information is needed. That information must be obtained either by phone calls, chats on the chat system on the center’s website or through the mail. In a modern system, the information could be instantly updated on the site.

“We still push a lot of paper” at the NMC, said Seither. The system is not set up to capture the kinds of data that modern IT systems routinely capture and analyze. The system can’t receive anything bigger than 8 megabytes via email.

In addition, said Seither, at least two of the NMC’s three specialized machines that print merchant mariner credential booklets are out of service on any given day. The center can usually keep up with daily demand with one machine, but if all three were out, “we would have a real problem,” she said. The machines, built by a German company, will come to the end of their design lives in five years.

The NMC has expanded its staff and is trying to recruit more workers, an effort that was well underway even before the shutdown. But “it takes time to grow an evaluator,” said Seither. “Evaluators need a very specific mix of skills and experience. It’s not easy to convince maritime people with the required expertise to move to Martinsburg.”

The presentation was more of a question-and-answer session, as MAREC attendees—all inland professionals—related the various issues they had had with the NMC.

Bill Kline, proprietor of The River School since 1997, pointed out that he had full-time people on his staff who do nothing but help mariners navigate the application process at the NMC. “It distresses me to hear that,” said Seither, and reiterated that the process would be much quicker with a more modern IT system.

However, Kline praised the NMC’s staff and said he worked together with them very productively. “Your staff is great,” he told Seither several times. “We understand that this is a process issue, not a staff issue. We know you are working with what you have.”

When asked whether the center had an estimate of how much time and money would be needed to set up a modern system, Seither said the question is being studied and will result in an estimate. But it’s not a question of IT alone, she said; IT architects must know what the system is designed to do, and that requires maritime expertise.