Sunday, July 1, 2012

Operational or Support

I found myself in a few conversations this last week centered on how to define an operational unit. Well, the question being asked was actually how to define support, but it turned out in order to do that, we had to define what operational was. I had a couple of partners in crime during these discussions...my new office-mate, Master Chief Hooligan (should really ask his permission to talk about him before mentioning his name, hence the moniker), a Maritime Enforcement-type and CDR B, a Sector Prevention-type.

One point I stumbled on along the way was the importance of this definition. The XO had stopped in The Body Shop (colloquialism for my office), probably to task me or MC, and got sucked into the conversation briefly. I was going on about why we were talking about the definition of operational in the first place, and got a skeptical look when I said that at this point it was more a theological discussion. I started to backtrack a little, but quickly realized that it really *is* almost theological, more than philosophical. How we define operational within our organization is sacred. It is fundamental to the  daily function of the Service and is really a key component of the glue that cements together all our disparate missions. It is how a Boatswain's Mate working buoys on the Mississippi River near Kentucky can share a sense of purpose with a pilot patrolling for drug runners in the middle of the Eastern Pacific Ocean can share a sense of purpose with a Marine Inspector in Boston Harbor, climbing around the bilges in a commercial bulk carrier.

The discussion went in predictable directions, of course. We used the "Operational Distinguishing Device" litmus test...though that one had a few problems for me: how did I get an "O" for my time at the D14 Command Center, but my MKC and FS2 on MAUI didn't? Well, I mean, I know how that happened, and it definitely informed the discussion...as a ridiculous outlyer. It was two different commands, obviously. And if I had to go back and change it -- make it make more sense -- I'd give up the "O" device from the Command Center and give it to the MKC and FS2. But the argument against them receiving the device was that they provided a support function on the ship. Read: They didn't do boardings. They only ran the boat deck crane, responded as part of the repair party in case of an emergency, handled lines and ran the focs'le or fantail during Special Sea Detail...nothing *all that* "operational" (really hoping the sarcasm is coming through here). Hell, neither did *I* as the CO, but I still got another "O" for that tour. Does Command and Control make a job operational? Maybe so...maybe that's why I got the device at the Command Center. Really, with the CC, though, I was just the mouthpiece...no different from a phone talker, passing communications from the leadership on the bridge to the operators on the flight deck. And I am still offended on behalf of my MKC and FS2 that they were not considered operational.

I think that line of argument originally came from discussions on larger cutters, WHECs/378s, where it was called into question if the Storekeepers (SKs - supply clerks), Yeomen (YNs), Health Service Technicians (HSs - corpsmen) and probably Food Service Specialists (FSs - cooks) were really operational, or more of a support function for operations underway. Again, they (typically) were not doing boardings. But, at least when I was on HAMILTON and BOUTWELL, they were phone talkers, tie downs, and part of the repair locker for flight ops and general emergencies, line handlers and line heavers during underway replenishments, and quarterdeck watchstanders, with guns, ready to defend the ship in ports, foreign and domestic against any threat...sounds pretty operational to me. Just because nothing happened that they had to react to, doesn't mean they weren't ready to react (if that was the case, most folks at MSSTs likely wouldn't deserve "O" devices, since they are in place to react to possible threats...but do their job so well that those threats very rarely manifest. How do you prove a negative again?). Well, and then there's that whole thing of, I don't know, just *being underway,* away from family, home, normal life.

So, it's more than just the "O" device. MC Hooligan, in typical MC fashion, attempted to simplify the definition to an easily understandable quantity. He said, If you have the possibility of being cold and wet, in the middle of the night, you're operational. I added that there has to be a level of associated risk, maybe of not coming back unscathed. This, then encompasses Marine Inspectors, Vessel Boarding and Security Teams (VBSTs) and probably the entire Incident Management division at Sectors. Most Sectors (I won't risk saying *all* Sectors, because I've been told, "you've seen one Sector...you've seen one Sector (instead of "you've seen one Sector, you've seen them all")) have Response, Prevention and Logistics Departments. The Response and Prevention Departments are the operational side of things...boardings, inspections, pollution investigation and clean-up, all those good things where people are exposed to bad weather, risky situations, dangerous conditions. The Logistics Department supports those functions.

I'm almost ready to suggest an "Operational" point system...you get so many points for being in uncomfortable situations: cold and wet, hot, sweaty and dehydrating (think off the coast of Panama), dirty and grimy (scrambling through bilges and engineering spaces); so many points for being in life-threatening situations (climbing the jacobs ladder to do an off shore boarding, going onboard an unknown vessel of any kind); so many points for being away from home (underway for two months, two weeks or, hell, even two days, or on a 2 days on-2 days off schedule at a station); so many points for busting your circadian rhythm all to hell (mid-night SAR cases, offshore boardings by the VBST that started out scheduled for 2200, but that get pushed back 'til 0200 because the ship being boarding is running a little behind PIM (path of intended movement...when you expect to be where underway), and do I even have to give an example from being underway on a cutter?); so many points for every time you have to do a GAR model risk analysis during the course of your day (my record for a day underway was probably around 15); so many points for...you get the gist of it.

But all that really does is prove that "Operational" is a spectrum...different things add to a person's operational-ness, depending on the unit they're at, the type of job they are assigned to do, the collateral duties they have. Someone will *always* be able to find that outlying example that goes against the general rule/guidance.

And it's funny the stated, unstated and unstate-able biases we each brought to the table during the course of our discussions. In the end, as a Program Reviewer, I had to concede that Sectors are, in fact, operational. As a cutterman, I'm not sure I'll ever get there. Just like I'm not sure I'll ever understand the justification of ACIP (Aviation Career Incentive Pay...ugh, don't get me started). Or fatigue standards for boat stations. I will always honor and respect the importance and contributions of other career paths...while reveling in the knowledge that *I* have the **coolest** job as a cutterman :)

1 comment:

Sassenach said...

Nearly 20 years later, I'm stilled offended on behalf of an XPO of a WPB who did not a receive an "O" device because his duties were "largely administrative." So, on a day when he received a promotion and was being sent to a great job, he received an award that left him wondering what he had done to piss off the district (previous awards to XPO's had "O" devices, and then it changed because a new Captain reported in). This, while marine inspectors were getting the "O".

The very capriciousness over who gets the "O" is worse than the argument over the dividing line itself.

Fact is, cutter duty is tough but the sand peeps have more time to play with the wording of the awards. Add in the bias against giving enlisted members "too high" an award, supervisors who can't write, and the unofficial quota systems over who gets what and it all adds up to a "rewards" system that isn't.

There's no shame in being a non-operational unit. The shame is when shore unit personnel act like this would be a much better place to work if it weren't for those damn floaty things at the docks.

Touched a nerve there, 'mate.