Commander Updates On Credential Issues At NMC

One year ago, the U.S. Coast Guard issued Marine Safety Information Bulletin 06-23, titled, “Merchant Mariner Credentialing Delays,” in which it stated, “Due to an increase in application volume and ongoing technical difficulties with the credential production equipment at the National Maritime Center (NMC), there are delays with the issuance of merchant mariner credentials (MMC).” The MSIB included updated instructions about how to speed the process along.

The Coast Guard is now in the process of issuing new single-page merchant mariner credentials that are replacing the old passport-style booklet (WJ, March 15).

How is the National Maritime Center doing with its processing of mariner credentials? According to its commanding officer, Capt. Bradley Clare, average processing time stands at about 28 days, and there are “no major delays throughout the system.”

Clare spoke with The Waterways Journal after it was contacted by a mariner who said his pilot’s credential had expired without renewal even though he submitted all his materials to the NMC more than 90 days beforehand.

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Clare declined to discuss any particular pending case, but he shared the latest updated figures from the NMC. He said the NMC is operating at full personnel strength. Some turnover is normal, within a range of 10 to 15 percent, but he said turnover is well within low historical norms.

“We have an outstanding staff who have been able to make a real dent in outstanding applications. Sometimes there are more people waiting than others, but overall we are in a good place,”Clare said.

“Overall processing time is about double net processing time. If there is any anomaly in a mariner’s application, it takes longer.” Like his predecessors, Clare said that mariners leaving off information is the single biggest cause of delays. “Needing additional information from mariners is the single biggest time-killer,” he said. “We shoot for 30 days.”

Clare said the NMC just got $11 million from Congress to develop a new information technology (IT) system.

The NMC is currently making use of an outside contractor, RiverTech, to help with the NMC’s processing work. RiverTech is a subsidiary of Insight Technology Solutions, which works with many defense agencies and branches, providing IT and mission support.

Clare did say that the expanded reporting requirements for incidents of past sexual misconduct or harassment—included in the James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the Fiscal Year 2023—have affected all mariners because it takes longer to do all screenings now, as personnel have to go back over the mariner’s entire life history. “Before, we only had to go back five years [in a mariner’s life]. Now we have to look back over the whole life,” he said.

But SASH (sexual assault and sexual harassment) reporting requirements are not the only causes of possible delays. Clare cited the example of an unlicensed deckhand who is allowed to steer on smaller vessels and is called “mate” by fellow crewmembers or his employers as a possible source of delay as NMC personnel investigate his status. He said there is a small group of mariners whose investigations may take longer than the 60- to 90-day standard. He conceded that they may not be immediately notified if they are subject to longer investigations, although they should eventually get email notifications.

Any adverse finding is considered under the category of “safety and suitability,” he said. “If you’re stuck in ‘safety and suitability,’ you are undergoing investigation.”Clare said an NMC staff member recently reported to NMERPAC (the National Merchant Marine Personnel Advisory Committee, an advisory committee that includes industry representatives) that there were about 60 current denials of credentials, some of which are being appealed. The NMC refers some credentials to the Suspension and Revocation Center of Expertise. “If we denied a raise in grade at NMC for SASH, we would refer to the Suspension and Revocation National Center of Expertise. We would not do so on a renewal or original application.”

The term “license” is no longer used in the regulations. “When the passport style book came out in 2009, the regulations were changed, and it is now a credential. The new form we started issuing in March is a credential.  Mariners still call this a license, but that is not a correct term, according to the regulations,” he said. Similarly, it took a generation for mariners to stop referring to “Z-Cards,” long after the “Z-numbers” for earlier merchant marine documents were discontinued.

Before this story went to press, The Waterways Journal was notified by the mariner who contacted us that his credential issues had been cleared by the NMC, and he was ready to go back to work.