Security plans for inland river areas and a possible reorganization for the Coast Guard Eighth District were the focus of a day-long meeting between the Coast Guard and AWO members in Branson, Missouri on October Eighth District Commander RADM Roy Casto held the meeting in conjunction with the District's annual
Commanding Officers conference. At the meeting, Admiral Casto and his staff outlined Coast Guard proposals to reorganize the Eighth District, splitting much of the inland rivers and the Gulf Coast into two separate regions. The proposal would have the effect of recreating the old Second District, which was closed in a cost cutting measure in 1996. As a part of the previous reorganization effort, staff levels were cut. For instance, prior to 1995, the old Eighth District had Marine Safety Division staff of 27 people to cover the Gulf Coast. Today the division has only 25 people to cover the Gulf Coast and all of the inland system. Admiral Casto said that the new security responsibilities of the Coast Guard make the current structure unworkable. Under the new proposal, the Eighth District would be split into two regions. One would cover the Western Rivers
Region, led by a one-star admiral headquartered in St. Louis. The Gulf Coast Region
would have a two-star admiral as commander and would remain in New Orleans. Within that structure, most Marine Safety Offices and operations groups would be combined into "Integrated Command Centers." The proposal is now being reviewed at Coast Guard
Headquarters and a decision could come within the next month. However, there is no clear timeline for implementation. Some of the reorganization may depend on whether the Coast Guard is placed in the new Department of Homeland Security.
On the topic of security, the Coast Guard plans to create a regional port security committee that would cover the Western Rivers area. The Coast Guard is working to create port security committees in major port areas. Those committees are tasked with identifying security concerns and recommending ways to address those concerns. The
regional port security committee would look at the Western Rivers area and would involve shallow draft operators and inland ports.
The Coast Guard also discussed efforts to improve performance at the Regional Exam Centers (RECs). The RECs have been widely criticized for poor performance and slow service. Some of the problems can be traced to the additional workload caused by implementation of STCW requirements on seagoing mariners and the additional scrutiny of licenses as a result of the new focus on terrorism. However, the Coast
Guard has worked to address those problems. As a result of new equipment purchases, increased funding for overtime and hiring out some temporary outside staffing, backlogs at most RECs have been reduced in recent months.
In the most dramatic change, New Orleans REC has seen the backlog for license applications drop from 10 weeks to an average of one week. Admiral Casto stated
that he is committed to continued improvements at the RECs and as a part of that, the Coast Guard will hold quarterly meetings with industry to discuss changes at the centers.
Speaking on behalf of the towing industry, Norb Whitlock, American Commercial Barge Line LLC, discussed the important role that the River Industry Executive Task Force (RIETF) plays in working out navigation problems on the Mississippi River. Mr. Whitlock also raised a number of industry concerns, including industry opposition to the Coast Guard's proposed rule on salvage and firefighting requirements.
Source: AWO Letter