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How the coronavirus is expediting the future of Coast Guard training

By Chief Warrant Officer Anastasia Devlin

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Despite the impact of the coronavirus to the workforce and the economy, the Coast Guard’s missions continue. Executing those missions requires trained, qualified people filling the roles and positions around the country: boat crews, boarding officers, inspectors, pilots, maintenance technicians, logistics specialists and more—all these jobs still require training. 

The Coast Guard’s training system has historically required in-person attendance, but given the physical constraints in place to help reduce the spread of coronavirus, it’s been difficult to maintain throughput working within the legacy training model. Transfer season continues, albeit more slowly, and qualified members are leaving and reporting to new units without the typical number of newly-trained replacements coming in behind them to fill the gap. 

The Force Readiness Command, which develops the plans, policies, and programs for formal Coast Guard education and training, is learning to adapt. Applying a two-fold strategy, FORCECOM and its eight major training centers have rolled out adaptive, creative solutions to maintain as much training capacity as possible within the parameters of the pandemic. 

 

Physical changes

FORCECOM’s first priority was student safety and reducing the risk of spreading the coronavirus; a large part of Coast Guard training relies on inherently close-contact, especially at boot camp, A-school and law enforcement training. Keeping the flow of graduates to the field is paramount to ensuring the Coast Guard’s current and future effectiveness.

For example, each company of Coast Guard recruits comprises more than 100 people, and with three or more companies simultaneously on board Training Center Cape May, N.J. and in different stages of training, meeting this challenge was no small feat.

“The first question we asked ourselves when reviewing our course offerings was, ‘Is this training mission essential and time critical?’ If the answer was no, we deferred it to a later date when circumstances would permit the training,” said Tim Quiram, the acting deputy commander of FORCECOM.

Closely mirroring the efforts of other military services, the Coast Guard restructured basic training to meet Center for Disease Control recommendations, including more space between bus seats, expanded berthing in squad bays, and the implementation of Training Restriction of Movement (T-ROM), a 14-day pause at the beginning of basic training for health assessment, monitoring, and individual online training.

This T-ROM period was also being implemented at other training centers. 

“Meeting social distancing guidelines is challenging for many of our courses. For example, the training at our aircraft transition courses occurs in the cockpit, where six feet of separation is not possible,” said Captain Richter Tipton, the training division officer for FORCECOM. “Our future corpsmen at HS [Health Service Technician] A-school have to learn how to draw blood. The T-ROM helps us medically screen these personnel prior to placing them in these close contact situations.”

Adding 14 days to a course isn’t ideal for students or their home units, but to alleviate some of the burden, the training centers are finding other means to still provide course content during the T-ROM period. In this way, much of the knowledge-based learning that’s typically done in a classroom setting would be completed in the individuals’ rooms at the start of the course (during the T-ROM). Once the quarantine period is over, the students safely convene and begin traditional close-contact work. 

Another tactic implemented was reducing class sizes by more than half, giving the training centers additional room to spread students’ desks apart by a minimum of six feet.

“The more we learn about this disease and how it spreads, the safer we can make our training facilities during this pandemic,” said Tipton.

 

Moving Training Online

Modifying traditional training to ensure the safety of students and staff is a short-term strategy that will last until the end of the pandemic, but where possible, the Coast Guard is rapidly shifting to a permanent virtual training solution. 

In October, FORCECOM began to transfer some of its 800-plus offerings online, starting with an aviation training mishap course, but the pandemic has become a catalyst, accelerating the move toward distance-learning. FORCECOM’s efforts are expanding the number of people able to receive training while also reducing the expense of travel and lodging for the students, or in some cases, the entire convening of a course.

Students gather via webcam, and classes include both a facilitator (instructor) and a producer (helping students communicate or manage technology issues).  

“These courses are not like PowerPoint,” said Commander David Torres, the lead project officer for virtual training courses. “The structure keeps your brain active and engaged in the training—there are actually more opportunities for student-instructor interaction online than we have in the in-person environment. Now we’re able to bring our instructors’ expertise to field units instead of the legacy model of flying students to training centers.”

One of the newest courses to adapt was the Afloat Prospective Commanding Officer/Prospective Executive Officer (PCO/PXO) course held at the Leadership Development Center in New London, Conn. This two-week school was split into one week of virtual training on leadership in command, and another week of simulator training (which will occur after restrictions due to the coronavirus have been lifted). 

In the first convening of the virtual format, six executive officers from cutters in Bahrain joined the class as they prepared to take command of vessels back in the U.S. this summer. With the stop movement order, these prospective command officers wouldn’t have been able to participate in the PCO/PXO course until the restriction was lifted.

“Many of our command cadre courses will be headed in this direction,” said Master Chief Petty Officer Jeff Waters, the command master chief for FORCECOM. “What’s the difference between a command philosophy from an air station to a sector to a cutter? There’s a benefit to showing how we share the same values and want to develop strong leadership across the Coast Guard. We don’t need to be in the same room to do that. Groups building these philosophies in an engaging, coached collaboration space online is just amazing.”

This is a welcome change; the Coast Guard’s ability to provide modernized, ready training has lagged behind their industry counterparts, who have leveraged advances in communication technology to reduce travel to in-person sessions.

Finding ways to bring the training to the students not only enables flexibility for the student, but also provides a more interactive classroom venue. Already, eight courses have moved online in the last two months, and 50 more are scheduled to be converted by Fall 2020.

 

The Future of Training

The Coast Guard is navigating some uncharted waters. Eventually, the physical constraints on training centers will be lifted, but the need for modernized ready learning will remain. While FORCECOM and the training centers have to adjust to the current situation, focusing on key adaptations that will accelerate training improvements in the system when normal conditions return has been a priority.

This fusion of technology and opportunity may open the gate for knowledge to be even more readily available across the spectrum of jobs and specialties in the Coast Guard.

“This is not business as usual; we’re in the middle of a cultural shift,” said the commander of FORCECOM, Rear Admiral Brian Penoyer. “Technology is rapidly changing our lives in such a way that maybe we don’t even realize how different our world will be in 20 years. But the Coast Guard is resilient—we’re adjusting on the fly to be trained and ready when our nation needs us. We’re transforming our current model, so we can deliver for the future force.”